Wiener’s exhibit offers snapshot of life before Shoah

Domestic photography is overlooked as trivial — but it’s important


A doorway into a largely unseen world is opened in a new exhibition at Britain’s largest Holocaust archive, the Wiener Library in central London.

There was a time: Jewish Family Photographs Before 1939, features over 100 previously unseen images from 12 Jewish families, covering the period from the turn of the century to the rise of fascism.

The exhibition’s title reflects the handwritten caption on the back of a stylish portrait of Berliner Dorothea Jacoby, taken by her husband in 1911. The couple and their son died in Auschwitz in 1943.

In contrast to the Jacobys’ then domestic bliss, a photo of Gertrude Glaser from Vienna with her parents in the 1930s has the portion featuring her first husband, Emil, torn out, an unspoken nod to the timeless pain of marital break-ups.

“It is really tactile to see somebody literally ripped out of a memory,” said assistant curator Helen Lewandowski, suggesting that the pressure of fleeing to the UK had strained the Glaser marriage.

“Sometimes this kind of domestic photography is overlooked for being too every day or trivial. It is important to remember that everything is purposeful — and it all tells a story.”

Omissions could be as intriguing as detailed information. For example, “where we have a caption for a photograph that has been removed from an album — and there are some pictures with people we are yet to identify. It is tantalising.

“We also want this exhibition to help people reconsider how they treat their own family photographs.”

Senior curator Dr Barbara Warnock emphasised the “vital role” the library plays “in collecting and preserving these important historical images”.

For Ms Lewandowski, the captions to the images were equally relevant. “You can hear the voices of those pictured and their relatives in their words, and what they have chosen to do with the pictures.

“Many are collected in albums but some are printed on postcards, suggesting that they planned to send them to family and friends. They were proud of these pictures.”

Many depicted people working, on holiday or playing sports. “People always want normality for as long as possible.”

The Wiener’s communications manager, Samantha Dulieu, added that the exhibition was more than another record of life before the Holocaust. “It’s a history of family and photography,” she said. “It could massively subvert people’s assumptions about Jewish families in the 1930s.”

Some of the exhibits reflect the efforts made by families to assimilate within national cultures that fascism would attempt to exclude them from.

One image is of Silesian-born Ernst Kamm dressed in traditional hunting regalia and sporting an array of First World War medals. He managed to flee to California in the wake of Kristallnacht.

Ms Lewandowski said it was important “to show images of normality from a time when a disaster is percolating. It makes you realise how quickly the environment can change.

“One Austrian man, Hubert Nassau, only kept one photograph from this period which shows himself and his fellow Hakoah [Jewish sports club] swimming teammates in the late 1920s.

“In an inscription dated 1952 on a copy of the picture, he noted to a friend that the copy was ‘to remember happy days which were not happy at all’.

“The images are nostalgic but they also help break nostalgia. They show reality, good and bad.”

There was a time: Jewish Family Photographs Before 1939, runs until November 4

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