Intro video for the exhibit, posted on YouTube
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
What looks like a wonderful and fascinating exhibit on Jewish heritage travel in the early 20th century has opened at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. The title of the exhibit says it all: 16mm Postcards: Home Movies of American Jewish Visitors to 1930s Poland.
brings to life the landscape and people in Poland through the amateur movies of immigrant American Jews who traveled “back home” to visit their families, friends, and former communities in the 1920s and 1930s. Intended to be viewed by family and fellow landsmen (friends from the Old Country), these films offer a rare, intimate and—quite literally—moving picture of Jewish families, towns and society in pre-World War II Poland. This exhibition was developed in collaboration with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and in cooperation with the Center for Jewish History.The films can be seen at the Center for Jewish History web site.
Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine that the exhibit
demonstrates how different things were in the early 20th century, when the ancestors of most American Jews came here from Eastern Europe. This extraordinary show consists of home movies—all silent, mostly fragmentary—taken by American Jews who visited their relatives in Poland in the 1930s. (Many of the films can be seen at the exhibition’s website.) What makes these films so powerful is their extreme rarity: It was only a small handful of Jews who had the wherewithal, and the desire, to go back to the villages they had left behind decades earlier. And the encounters they document show how drastically the fates of American and Polish Jewry had diverged by the 1930s. In many films, we see the American cousin, prosperous and dressed in a Western suit, standing next to his poor, bearded, caftanned relatives; and it is impossible not to wonder what must have been going on in their minds and hearts.
Did the American cousin, clutching his camera like a badge of modernity, give thanks that he had been rescued from ancestral poverty and anti-Semitism—or did he feel nostalgia for the Jewish world from which he was cut off? Did the Polish cousin envy his American relative, or resent his intrusion, or long for his help? The pathos is infinitely greater, of course, because the viewer knows that all these Polish Jews—old and young, men and women and children—are just a few years away from the Holocaust. Virtually none of the people we see in these home movies was alive 10 years later. Because of the Holocaust, the natural growing-apart of the Old Country and the New World became an irreparable break, and a source of permanent guilt. Jews who came to America lived and flourished, while those who remained behind suffered and died: How can such a gulf ever be crossed?
The questions that “16 mm Postcards” raises, silently and by implication, are addressed head-on in a new book that might serve as a companion to the exhibition: The Glatstein Chronicles (Yale University Press). This is the title given by the volume’s editor, Ruth Wisse, to two novellas published by the great Yiddish writer Jacob Glatstein in the late 1930s, based on his own pilgrimage to the Alte Heym. Glatstein was born in Lublin in 1896 and came to New York in 1914. After working for a time in sweatshops, he established himself as a Yiddish journalist, while writing poetry that brought the influence of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound to bear on Yiddish literature. “The term experimentation,” Wisse writes in her introduction, “hardly suffices to describe the many subjects that Glatstein addresses, the poses he adopts, and the poetic variations he attempts.”