Beyond the Forest: Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe
In 2004, the Israeli-American photographer Loli Kantor traveled to Płaszów, Poland—once the site of a Nazi concentration camp, not far from Kraków—to take part in a month-long volunteer project recovering a Jewish graveyard. “I wanted to go to Poland not as a tourist, but doing something else,” she explains.
In addition to her volunteer work, that “something else” included exploring her family roots in the area. The daughter of survivors who lost their entire families in the Holocaust, Kantor had long been eager to learn more about her family history. On rainy days, when the weather shut down work on her volunteer project, she would travel to her parents’ hometowns, not far from Płaszów, to pore over local archives. She also used her time there to meet people, developing relationships that allowed her to dig more deeply into the place, its history and culture.
Over the next eight years, Kantor returned to Poland two or three times each year. She also began visiting Ukraine. Each time she went, she met more people, developed deeper relationships, and learned more about local Jewish history and communities. Ultimately, she documented those communities in a series of stunning photographs. An exhibit of that work, Beyond the Forest: Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe, will be in the Yiddish Book Center’s Brechner Gallery through October 15.
Beyond the Forest considers the re-emergence of Jewish life in a region where Jewish communities were once destroyed. On her many trips to Eastern Europe, Kantor visited both cities and small towns. Often, she planned her trips around holidays, so she could see how people in different places observed the traditions and rituals. In each place, she’d connect with local leaders, who would introduce her to more people. “I went back to the same communities over and over, so they’d feel more comfortable with me and I’d learn their stories better,” Kantor explains. “It takes time.” Only then would she take out her camera.
Kantor used several techniques for the photographs: Some are color, to emphasize that the scenes and subjects they capture are very much of the present day. Others she shot in black and white, or using the palladium process, which produces smaller, atmospheric images with a brown tinge; Kantor used these methods, she says, to give certain images a sense of intimacy and history, not unlike family snapshots. “These different ways of photographing and printing give you a different way of looking at the work and what’s behind it,” she says. “I hope people will see different layers of what these photographs mean.”
For Kantor, the project opened a window on the story of Jews in Eastern Europe, past and present. While much of Jewish life there disappeared during and after the war, she found surprising evidence of a renewed interest in Jewish culture today. “I learned that in these communities, their Jewish identity was very important to them,” she says. “It was important to them to celebrate the holidays, to eat the foods associated with those holidays, to learn the rituals.” In some cases, it’s non-Jews—artists, historians, activists—who recognize the value of that culture and are working to preserve it, she notes.
The project also answered many personal questions for Kantor, particularly about her parents, both of whom died when she was young. “I never knew my mother. But I learned where she lived, where she went to school, how she survived,” Kantor says. “When you dip into these things, it opens up all these other questions.”
Beyond the Forest: Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe is made possible in part by the support of the Brechner family.
Above: Women of Bershad, Passover, Bershad Synagogue, Ukraine, 2008