Poland's prewar Jewish community commemorated in new book of Nachum Tim Gidal photos

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      Vancouver scholar, art lover, and philanthropist Yosef Wosk feels he was fortunate to have once been a student of Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Many years ago, Wiesel challenged Wosk’s class in Boston to recognize that they were living in historic times—no less so than those who were alive during the Biblical period.

      “People sometimes say, ‘Everything’s been done, I’m of no importance, there’s nothing I can do,’ ” Wosk tells the Straight by phone.

      He counters that because we live in historic times, everything we do is important. “So there’s great opportunity for responsible action, joyous action, for creativity.”

      Wosk’s appreciation for history, responsible and joyous action, and creativity—not to mention his friendship with a much older photographer—has led him to write the preface and curate 82 images in Memories of Jewish Poland: The 1932 Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal. Gidal, an energetic Jewish pioneer of modern photojournalism, was born in Munich in 1909 and died in Jerusalem in 1996.

      Gidal, who produced more than 30 books over his life, began taking photographs in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This coincided with technological advances that made it easier for him to travel to different locations to capture images.

      Wosk met Gidal in 1993, and by the fall of 1996 they had exchanged hundreds of pieces of correspondence by mail and fax.

      “You might say he shot from the hip, and sometimes literally,” Wosk explains. “He didn’t pose people.”

      This fiddler and his son were photographed in Warsaw.
      Nachum Tim Gidal

      In 1932, Gidal visited Poland, which was then home to more than three million Jews, including some of his relatives. There he photographed dozens of residents—considered exotic Eastern Jews by Jews in Germany—engaged in everyday activities, like working in the streets, attending the market, standing in a river, playing a violin, sitting over a book, or simply resting.

      These images show a side of prewar Eastern Europe that few in the West have ever seen. They include, Wosk writes in the preface, “ba’al agalahs (wagon masters) who could afford both wagon and horse, and with poor laborers waiting for work and willing to carry the world upon their shoulders for a zloty or two".

      The introduction is written by Nissan N. Perez, founder of the Israel Museum's photography despartment. He describes the collection of Gidal's photographs as an "indelible visual document for Jewish history".

      The watchman over the Jewish cemetary in Vilna, Poland, in 1932.
      Nachum Tim Gidal

      Seven years after the pictures were taken, Nazi forces overran the border to launch the Second World War, setting the stage for the Holocaust. Wosk points out that 90 percent of the 3.3 million Jewish residents in Poland at the start of this war ended up being murdered.

      Because the Jews photographed by Gidal were living so close to Germany, he says it’s possible that not a single person shown in the book survived.

      “When you are looking upon them, you are looking at ghosts,” Wosk points out in the preface. “Little did Gidal imagine that his photographs would fulfill a messianic ideal—resurrection of the dead. Do not look lightly upon these images; they bear the weight of history. When you witness them, you bestow them with new light.”

      Uncle Yukel was a Jewish community leader in Lowicz in the 1930s.
      Nachum Tim Gidal

      Wosk's recollections of Gidal

      Wosk's friendship with Gidal began rather innocently. He writes in the preface of the book that when he saw one of Gidal's photographs, he made a point of trying to meet him.

      Sometimes, Wosk acknowledges, outstanding artists may not be very likable people. But this wasn't the case with Gidal.

      "Tim proved to be just a wonderful individual," he recalls. "He had no pretense. He was straight up. And he didn't have patience for fools but he was a generous mentor."

      Even though Gidal was in his 80s when they met, he retained a youthful vigour and outlook, even after taking tens of thousands of photographs.

      The cover image on the book, which is at the top of this article, was a compromise between Wosk and the publisher.

      Wosk favoured a photograph of Uncle Yukel, an elderly man with beautiful eyes and a beard who was the leader of his community. The publisher preferred an image of young kids pumping water at a fountain.

      "Eventually, we settled on this one because it seemed it was not threatening," Wosk says. "It was joyous. It was welcoming as opposed to giving too much pushback."

      Yosef Wosk joins Alan Twigg in conversation at the virtual book launch of Memories of Jewish Poland: The 1932 Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal next Thursday (February 11) at the Zack Gallery in the Jewish Community Centre of Vancouver. It's a prologue to the Cherie Smith Jewish Book Festival, which will be held from February 20 to 25.