§1.1 Something and Nothing: Diptychs
The top photograph here shows the unmarked hillside which was the Jewish cemetery in the town of Bibrka, and the bottom photograph shows the ruin which was the town’s synagogue. Both pictures beg fundamental questions. One might say that both pictures show sites of Jewish heritage which are also non-sites of Jewish heritage, inasmuch as they remain unknown to Ukrainians and to Jews alike. Or one might say that they show non-sites of memory which might just as well be called sites of non-memory, inasmuch as they are also sites for other activities, such as depositing waste. Both pictures complicate the ordinary distinction between actuality and invention, inasmuch as “heritage” seems like a fictitious word to describe empty and forsaken places of this kind. Both pictures show the state of collective memory of the Jewish as a slipping-away of care and attention, which occasionally morphs into unseen agency aggressing on that which stands to be remembered. Bibkra, a small impoverished town in the eastern Galician countryside whose Jewish community was annihilated 70 years ago after hundreds of years of existence, is affluent with paradoxes and complications.
Jews were drawn to Velyki Mosty 450 years ago, drawn by legal prototections guaranteed in the city charter and upheld by city officials, including the right to live anywhere in the city, to trade and to work in skilled crafts. These rights provided the anchor for Jewish life in the town, and for the shared world that Jews, Poles and Ukrainians made together. The top photograph here depicts a street that was once in the heart of Velyki Mosty’s Jewish district, and the bottom photograph shows Velyki Mosty’s Great Synagogue and mikvah (visible at left and right, respectively). These structures form the only visible traces of Jewish life in Velyki Mosty. Talking with me as I made photographs, the town’s mayor, Yaroslav Royko, recalled an atrocity that occurred in early July 1941, confirming a story also recounted in Velyki Mosty’s Yizkor Book. Soon after the Germans occupied the town, German and Ukrainian police imprisoned two dozen of Velyki Mosty’s prominent Jews in this synagogue, then set it on fire and burned them alive. As we stood together looking at the synagogue, the mayor asked me what I thought was the best angle to make a picture. When I pointed not at the building but toward the brushfire that city workers were making beside it, he fell silent, then shook his head in agreement.
Though Jews for centuries formed from a third to half of the population of Sambir, Jewish history in the town is all but invisible. No Jewish communal buildings stand, the vast Jewish cemetery contains not a single standing original tombstone, and there are no historical markers in the town to the lost Jewish community. One might say that for a (shrinking) number of older citizens of contemporary Sambir, Jewish Sambir remains a memory, while for some greater number it is a story but not a memory, and for still others, it is neither a memory nor a story. The two photographs here were made at key locations in the erstwhile Jewish community of Sambir. The bottom photograph shows the site of the Jewish synagogue, now an orchard, and the top photograph shows a small section of Sambir’s Jewish cemetery. Consider this bottom photograph. Its tiered visual structure offers a particular interpretation of the town’s relationship to its Jewish history. We see newly built homes proceeding in a line across the top of the image, divided by a dirt track––a daily walking path––from a garbage pile. It takes a moment to recognize the fragments of Jewish headstones in the garbage pile. On the one hand, the headstones appear to attract detritus, indeed to be detritus––unseen detritus, sitting “below” the town’s houses, almost like an antique buried in a garden. On the other hand, the fact that the tombstones attract detritus suggests that they retain a certain power, as if the destroyed cemetery cannot be ignored by citizens taking their daily walks, and the throwing of waste represents a subconscious acknowledgment of a cursed site in the town.
Jews were among the first residents of Lviv, founded in the mid-thirteenth century. Providing capital and crucial international trade links, within a century Jews were granted equal rights in the city, and came to occupy a quarter to the southeast of the main market square. This quarter was both an integral component of the multicultural city, and for centuries an insular unit in the specifically Jewish world of the city. It contained synagogues, ritual bathhouses, kosher slaughterhouses, hospitals, schools, and communal offices. Both of the photographs here were made in this inner city Jewish quarter, the top picture in a seventeenth century Jewish townhouse, the bottom in an eighteenth century building with a view onto the site of the famous Golden Rose Synagogue. How to speak of the Golden Rose? Small, nested in a courtyard without a street entrance of its own, square in plan and with a very high ceiling to allow light from all sides throughout the day, simply put it was one of the pearls of Jewish architecture in Europe, from 1582 until the Germans destroyed it in 1942. Today, only a portion of the north and east walls exist, including the main entrance, visible in the picture. If it is right to say that an emotional space exists between the deep interiority of the centuries-old tenements, and the once-exquisite house of God whose roof is now the sky itself, these two photographs mark out the contours of that space. It is a space difficult to dwell in for very long––a space of warmth and pain, aliveness and destruction.
Founded in the mid-seventeenth century, Ivano-Frankivsk is the third largest city in eastern Galicia, after Lviv and Ternopil. Jews were among the city’s earliest settlers, and comprised a third to half of the urban population, depending on the era, as was the case in cities and towns across eastern Galicia for centuries . Today, Ivano-Frankivsk is one of only three cities in eastern Galicia (alongside Lviv and Kolomiya) with a Jewish religious community and a renovated synagogue. The congregation, led by Rabbi Moshe Kolesnik, is tiny and elderly, and its synagogue is spacious and empty, a sunlit space of quietude. Kolesnik himself takes a philosophical approach to questions of the past and future of Jewish life in the city. “Stanislaviv [the town’s original name before 1962] cannot be apart from its history, and history cannot be without the people who made it––not without Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and Germans. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are all parts of something larger––call it “always”––and the whole of time, to be whole, cannot lack any of its parts.” It is perhaps not surprising that Kolesnik is an active scholar of his city’s history, down to its minute details. Among other places, he directed me to the site of a Jewish mass grave on Belvederska Street, containing the remains of approximately 2,000 Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The site is completely unmarked, and is now in the process of being overbuilt with new housing. The two photographs here set forth a dialectic between the grave and the synagogue––a dialogue of erasure and remembrance, ignorance and knowledge, violence and peace, time-with and time-without the recognition of “always.”
“The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets,” writes the Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), widely considered to be among the most important theologians of the twentieth century, “the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Heschel’s words ring acutely through these two photographs. The top image contemplates the state of the destroyed Jewish cemetery in Zhovkva, now an open-air market, and the bottom image describes something of town’s magnificent seventeenth-century synagogue, stripped of its dignity but not of its sanctity. Each in its own way, these two pictures suggest that studying the Jewish past in eastern Galicia unavoidably means wrestling with evil, guilt, indifference, and responsibility. The simple truth is that no one anywhere is currently doing anything for these sites––not any citizen group in Zhovkva, not the impoverished town itself, not the Ukrainian government, not any international organization dedicated to preserving and protecting endangered historic sites, not any Jewish organization in Ukraine or abroad. The “nothing” that characterizes Jewish Zhovkva is not just the destruction of the world that was, but the unconcern of the world that is.
The top photograph here shows a single headstone in the large Jewish cemetery in Buchach, visually retrieved from a dense thicket of bramble growing everywhere around it. The bottom photograph shows an overview of what was the Jewish residential section of the town, in full spring bloom and strewn with waste. Both pictures dwell on the question of Jewish belonging in Buchach, and by extension in all of eastern Galicia in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The bottom photograph is designed symmetrically––in a way that proposes visual stability and accessibility––around a sequence of receding V-shapes. We see prewar Jewish homes nested within Buchach’s civic and church buildings, and its hilly topography. The Jewish in Buchach, as this picture proposes it, was not peripheral to the town’s life. On the contrary, it was central to Buchach, in the middle and at the bottom of it all. In the top photograph, the Jewish headstone abides in the midst of thorny chaos, steady and durable within it, if not quite invulnerable. In contrast to the bottom image, in which a clear visual path moves into and through a place that is perhaps not obviously Jewish (and is certainly unmarked as such publicly), the top image offers no easy visual path to reach that which is obviously Jewish. The result is that the headstone seems far off and at a remove, even if more planted, more rooted than the flora itself. Both photographs, in short, do not just offer facts about Jewish life in Buchach. Rather they offer what might be called facts beyond themselves––information in the condition of metaphor, tangible things as likenesses of intangible things. It seems right that Jewish Buchach should take shape in the mind as a dependence between these images––toward a vision without hard boundaries between literal and figurative, report and poem.
Part 1: Something and Nothing
The clearest and most distinct physical traces of eastern Galicia’s deep Jewish history are its communal patrimony––synagogue structures, cemeteries with at least some headstones standing, and sundry communal buildings. To say that these traces exist clearly and distinctly is not to say that they are intact. On the contrary, virtually all are in some state of ruin. This ruin signals a more encompassing reality, namely the great absence of visible traces of Jewish life in eastern Galicia. Whatever is clear and distinct pales in comparison to that which is unmarked, unapparent, and effectively invisible. This section of the exhibition grapples with the core contradiction that defines Jewish heritage in eastern Galicia. It presents a dialectic of traces and tracelessness, ruined presence as against sheer absence, improbable survival as against blunt erasure, something as against nothing.