"Activists can move a tombstone, but they cannot restore it": How photographer Christian Herrmann makes a vanished world visible

How photography and civic activism can bring an understanding of a shared past and mutual responsibility.

Mikhail Kaluzhsky
28 March 2018

Jewish cemetery in Karczew, Masovia, Poland. Photo: Christian Herrmann. All rights reserved.

This article is part of “Practically about Memory”, our series on memory activism in the post-Soviet space. Read the introduction to it here.

For almost 15 years, German photographer Christian Herrmann has been documenting the remains of a world that no longer exists, travelling across eastern Europe photographing former synagogues, derelict Jewish cemeteries and doors with traces of torn mezuzahs. Herrmann’s blog “Vanished World” and books show a part of east European history that is still present in a everyday life, but often overlooked.

How do you define the work you do?

I would call it documentary. I would never use the term “art” because art is something totally different. There are great photographers like Sylvia de Swaan or Ben Altman who deal with similar topics and make it art. I just try to find these lost places, see what’s left and make it public somehow, so it’s doesn’t fall into oblivion. In some cases, the photos are part of the history of the places. Either things have completely vanished or got restored.

How did you start this project? It’s a common thing among Americans or Canadians who visit this part of the world, trying to find their roots. Do you have family connections with Eastern Europe?

Most people don’t travel to eastern Europe, most of them grew up with horrible stories about the hometowns of their parents or grandparents. It's not a surprise that the Holocaust overshadows all memories. I have discussions with second or third generation descendants on a nearly daily basis, people who have roots in these places. Very often they are really scared to go to there, for them it’s like visiting cannibals. I have no family roots in any of these eastern European countries. So why am I photographing these places? Like with many things in life, the beginning was accidental.


Former New Synagogue of the Hasidic court in Chortkiv, Galicia, Ukraine. Photo: Christian Herrmann. All rights reserved.It was in the mid-90s, and I was invited to a summer school to Poland. I had no expectations about the place, but fell in love with Krakow. Such a beautiful city! And I thought: it’s really crazy that the borders are open for several years, we are free to travel to wherever we want, but nearly nobody does. I decided for myself that I would go travelling. After my Krakow experience, I already had an awareness of the remains of Jewish life. I learned a lot. I thought I knew something about the Holocaust, but traveling taught me that I didn’t.

We’ve learned in schools how people got killed, but we’ve learned nothing about how they lived

One of the things I learned was the difference of Jewish life in eastern Europe in comparison to Germany and other Central European countries, in the sense of quantity and quality. In Germany, the Jewish population was less than one percent of the entire populace before the Nazis came to power. In Poland, the average was 11% and in the cities it was about 30%, so this is a very different societal composition. It makes a difference when one percent of population is removed from a city or when 30% is removed, the latter changes everything.

I also understood that I knew nothing about how Jews lived, about their beliefs, what books they were writing and reading, what music they were listening to. Nothing. We’ve learned in schools how people got killed, but we’ve learned nothing about how they lived. I was also surprised to learn how much of the heritage remained. People often believe everything was destroyed. It is not true. There are synagogues preserved at many places, there are cemeteries, there are community buildings. They are still there, used for other purposes, of course, often in bad shape, sometimes overgrown or damaged.

In other words, German society know less about the real life of those who perished in the Holocaust?

Everybody knows about Auschwitz. If you ask people on the streets which word comes into their mind when they think of the Holocaust, it would be Auschwitz. There is no consciousness about the fact that most of the Holocaust victims never saw a concentration camp. Many were shot in their own towns or villages, were sent to killing sites that can not be described as camps, or perished in ghettos. Of course, it is right to remember what happened in Auschwitz. But when it is limited to that, it rather becomes proof of how memory is fading. Then Auschwitz becomes a place where memory is fenced in, where we ban it to a certain place, where we separate it from our lives.


Former synagogue in Staryi Sambir, Galicia, Ukraine. Photo: Christian Herrmann. All rights reserved.An average German has learned about the Holocaust in school and through media. School teaching is based on the question “How could this happen?” There is nothing wrong with this question. But I'm missing the question: “Who were the people who have been murdered?” To a certain extent, there is information on that when it concerns German Jews – think of Anne Frank, her diary is still a bestseller. On Jews further east, the information is low and so is the empathy.

When did you start documenting these places?

It has been a process. I started to travel in the mid-90s without a concept what to find: just to see how places are, doing a bit of photography but not systematically. Then after a while, friends and colleagues became interested in my experiences. I thought there should be something I could share with them and this was photography. And later, much later there was also my blog. As much as I appreciate Facebook, I was a bit of bored with it: you put something online and then it’s gone in a short time. I wanted something more sustainable, a kind of an archive. I started the Vanished World blog in 2012. And after all, there were material for exhibitions, articles and other media. I have published a book and another one is in preparation.

But you aren’t the only person who does this work systematically.

No, there are some others. Somehow everybody stands on the shoulders of others. There was David Goberman, a Soviet photographer who quite systematically photographed many sites with black-and-white film, especially in the west of Ukraine, without any chance to publish it in the Soviet Union at that time. So his book Carved Memories, with a selection of his photos, was published in America only in 2000. Together with Monika Krajewska who did similar work in Poland in the 1980s, he was a real pioneer.

There are a lot of photographers who go into this topic for a short time, making it somehow a project and then hop to the next project. But there are others to whom the traces of Jewish life were a long term project, sometimes a life time project. Think of Chris Schwarz and his inspiring photo exhibition in the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. There are also Andrzej Polec, Loli Kantor, Simon Geißbühler, Łukasz Baksik and Wojciech Wilczyk. Some of them focus on the traces of the past, others are rather looking for the remaining Jewish communities. And only recently Agnieszka Traczewska published a beautiful book on Hasidim returning to holy sites in Poland. Particularly dear to me is the work of Jason Francisco who created the new Eastern Galicia section in the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. I am not alone.

How do people react? We are talking about a vanished world, nothing of which could be restored. We deal with a perfectly pure piece of memory.

There are different reactions. One is, of course, to be shocked. Especially those who have family roots there. Another reaction is having a lot of questions. One question is: why does it look like this today? There is not a single answer to it. One reason is, of course, is the absence of Jewish communities. The main reason for this is the Holocaust, but also a wave of destruction after the war: in Poland as well as in all countries that were the Soviet Union. Then there was mass immigration after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So even in places where there had been substantial post-war Jewish communities, only a few people were left. Concerning Ukraine, I would think 80-90% of Jews left after 1991. Those who stayed are often old people. So it is obviously not within the capacity of these communities to care for all heritage sites. There is also the question why the follow-up states of those responsible for the Holocaust do not fund and support more. Sometimes it happens. In many cases, not.

Why is the Jewish diaspora, who is claiming the importance of these places, not helping to preserve more? Some individuals do, but many do not. As long as everybody believes it is the obligation of somebody else, things continue to vanish.

When I read about the work of Marla Raucher Osborn and Rohatyn Jewish Heritage in west Ukraine, I am fascinated about how the locals, people who live there now, mostly Ukrainians, are involved in the process of restoration of Jewish sites. Speaking from your experience, is there any difference how local communities in those places deal with this vanished world?

There are, of course, differences. One difference in Romania, the Baltic States and Poland is that there are options for European funding if municipalities, Jewish communities or local activists want to do something. This changes a lot. Romania had its EU-funded programme for restoration of synagogues and also in Poland a lot has been done. Things are more difficult in places where material resources are low. This is true for Ukraine, for Moldova. I haven't been to Belarus yet, but I can imagine that it would not differ much.


A grindstone made from a Jewish tombstone. Volochysk, Podolia, Ukraine. Photo: Christian Herrmann. All rights reserved.The voices from the local population are quite diverse. Some people feel ashamed about the state of things, but don’t know how to change it. Taking things into your own hands in not really a Soviet tradition. Some people would be embarrassed that foreigners come and see this. But embarrassment is the rarest reaction I got. I remember only two or three cases when people were shouting at me and told me to leave. The common reaction is that people want to get in touch with you, to know what you are doing, to share a story that they remember, to share what they have heard from others, from their parents or their grandparents. There is obviously an interest to talk. Finally, there are young people of two interesting groups. One group are local historians. In every town you will find one who the will be absolutely familiar with every detail of the town's history, including Jewish history. These are not professional historians, they are often amateurs, but they know everything, every detail. It's quite fascinating.

And then there are young people, who rediscover local history by activism. The whole Maidan revolution started a process of rethinking identity for many Ukrainians. People get interested in their local heritage, feel a kind of responsibility to preserve it and to do something for it. They naturally stumble over the Jewish history of a town and many of them don't have any prejudice and integrate it into their own narrative.


Former Great Synagogue, now a gym in Horodenka, Galicia, Ukraine. Photo: Christian Herrmann. All rights reserved.During my last trip with Marla and Jay Osborne, we met Tetyana Sadovska in the town of Radekhiv near Lviv. She and her friends wanted to care for the overgrown Christian cemetery, so they asked the mayor if they could organise a clean-up. The cemetery has a section for civilians; next to it is a mass grave for Soviet soldiers, divided by a fence. They disliked the idea of separating the dead. They asked the mayor if they could remove the fence. The fence runs close to a little path, at that time it was asphalted. When they were working they found out that under the asphalt were stones. And then one of these local historians came by and told that these were the tombstones of the Jewish cemetery. They asked a local construction company and all their friends to volunteer to remove the asphalt and to save the tombstones. The stones are now piled up in and they are thinking of what to do with them, maybe to build a memorial.

This is how things are developing. I could tell you more of such stories. This is something that is widely overseen when we only look at the official institutions. When we direct our attention exclusively to the whitewashing of history by the Institute of National Remembrance of Ukraine, we get a completely different picture. But at the same time on the local level there are initiatives, often by young people, who really care for the local heritage and they do this without any prejudice and ideological debates. They don’t have any material resources and no guidance. It would be wonderful if there was a foundation where they could apply for funding and advice.

Now we are approaching the time when the last Holocaust survivors will pass away and the moment when our relationship with the Holocaust will become completely different. It becomes history, not just a living memory of people who could tell you about it. What do you think what will happen with the memory of east European Jewish life in the near future, in the next 10-15 years?

It is difficult to say. When survivors cannot talk to you any more and tell their story, we will need places that would tell. This is a good reason to care for the remaining heritage. But time is running out. Some things will probably fully disappear. Other things will continue to erode. In the 19th century, sandstone was a popular material for tombstones. Due to the little experience with this material at that time, stones were often prepared the wrong way and now we face how the surface gets destroyed by weather – the writings are fading.


Photo: Christian Herrmann. All rights reserved.Another problem is the preservation of buildings. I believe Ukraine alone has about 2,000 synagogues. It depends, of course, on how you count. If you count the “great synagogues”, where people would go for the high holidays, then there are probably only a few hundreds. But many towns have more than one synagogue; there are also former prayer and study houses, ritual baths and schools. Many are now shops, offices, apartments or workshops. They are often unprotected. There are a lot of places that have only a small chance to survive. And it will very much depend on local initiatives of how to deal with that. I think therefore these local young people are especially important to integrate the Jewish history in their own national narrative. It is not our history or their history. It is a common history. Something that we share. And if it gets to that point, the chance of survival of heritage sites is much bigger.

In some places, I see change. But it needs more initiatives. It needs funding for more restoration works. Of course, voluntary work is important, but not everything can be done by volunteers; from a certain point on professionals are needed. Activists can move a tombstone, but they cannot restore it. And obviously it also needs political willpower.


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