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Image Before My Eyes: A History of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust (2004) - PopMatters Fi

K. Atwood

The film distills its photos, films, recordings, and narratives into a profoundly potent and heartrending vision of lost European Jewry.


Image Before My Eyes: a History of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust

Director: Joshua Waletzky
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Cinema 5 Distributing
US DVD Release Date: 2006-04-25
First date: 1981
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It is often difficult for the mind to precisely and justly grasp massive human carnage unless there are clear faces and stories that illuminate the lives lost. Image Before My Eyes: A History of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust is such an attempt. This film gives a clear face (and voice) to the millions of Jews slaughtered in Hitler's death camps. The Holocaust itself is hardly mentioned, but because the film paints such a vivid picture of Jewish society in Poland prior to the second World War — visually illuminating the details of that society and the people that were destroyed — that it substantiates the depth of loss with distinct poignancy.

Originally released in 1980 and dealing with Jewish life in Poland, largely between the two world wars, Image Before My Eyes is comprised of home movies, interviews with Holocaust survivors of originally Polish nationality, old musical recordings, and photos, many of which were included in a 1976 photography exhibit presented by the Jewish museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City (the photos were later amassed into a book that shares a title with the film).

Why a study of Polish Jews instead of European Jewry in general? Prior to the second world war, Poland contained the largest Jewish community in Europe and although anti-Semitism was always present in some measure, Poland's Jews generally had more autonomy than did Jews of other European countries and had, therefore, the freedom to develop their culture to an extent that Jews of other nations were not afforded. Image Before My Eyes seeks to explore not only what was accomplished by these most unfettered of European Jews, but because the potential of these accomplishments were cut off by the second world war, the film leaves a huge "what might have been" in the mind of the viewer.

One aspect of Jewish life that Image Before My Eyes depicts very clearly — the aspect a direct result of Polish Jews' relative freedom — is the vast philosophical differences between Jew and Jew. The film quotes a well-to-do Reformed Jew recalling his ambivalent feelings towards Orthodox Jews with this thought: "I was not particularly proud of them, but I felt that they were my brothers." Another film interviewee explains that, as a young woman who had moved from the country in order to improve herself educationally and who had settled into an urban Hasidic community, she had to hide her Sabbath-day educational activities from her more observant brethren.

Of particular interest is how the film depicts the philosophical differences between the Zionists and the Universalists. The Zionists, of course, wanted a homeland in Palestine that would be their own. One of the film's interviewees profoundly illustrates the impetus behind the Zionist position when he explains how he came to embrace that philosophy. Because Poland was a highly stratified society and because he, as a young man, spoke and dressed very well, blue-collar Gentile workers would often take off their hats as he passed by. But, as he says in the film, "if one of those workers found out in the next three minutes that I was a Jew, he might just spit on me and I didn't change at all in those three minutes." They had helped build Polish society, they were drafted into the Polish army, they were exemplary Polish citizens, but Poland's Jews would never feel completely part of the society in which they lived.

The Universalists on the other hand, sought to create a strong Jewish culture and presence in Europe despite the constant shadow of anti-Semitism, and it was they who were largely responsible for creating the rich secular culture between the two world wars that the film so vividly portrays. The Universalists not only spoke Yiddish (a combination of Hebrew and other European languages), but embraced the language to the point of creating highly-developed Yiddish literature societies and Yiddish theaters (there were over 100 Yiddish theater groups prior to the outbreak of WWII). The Bund — a political party that combined socialism with Universalist ideals — was on the verge of incredible breakthroughs in social and educational programs before all its possibilities were snuffed out in the fires of 1 September, 1939.

The film moves from point-to-point very quickly, sometimes with very little explanation, and it occasionally plays ping pong with its historical time line. For instance, the beginning of the film features some footage of Woodrow Wilson's visit to Europe after the First World War. That, coupled with the narrator's claim that the film is going to focus on the years between the two world wars, makes an observer think that, well, the film is going to focus on the years between the two world wars. It does... and then again, it doesn't. After the Wilson footage, the film, without much explanation, dips back into the decades prior to the First World War.

The subtitle of the previously mentioned book states that its photographs cover the years from 1864 through 1939 and about one third of the way through the film, it became clear that some of what I had been watching was late 19th century Polish-Jewish history, not 20th century. Well into the film, Poland's partitioned existence upon entering the First World War is suddenly discussed: more than 100 years prior, Poland had ceased to exist nationally because every inch of it had been annexed to its neighbors. If this information was to be included, shouldn't it have been included earlier on? If the film was going to first cover 19th century life (or at the very least, 20th century life prior to the First World War), shouldn't that have been stated in a clearer fashion from the outset? Apparently, someone else noticed the potential for confusion because accompanying the DVD is a glossy 21-page study guide which nicely fills in the historical blanks and expands upon important points that are barely touched on in the film, giving a much clearer time line and making the entire endeavor more comprehensible.

What the film lacks in perfect organization, however, it more than makes up for in raw emotive power. Image Before My Eyes distills its photos, films, recordings, and narratives into a profoundly potent and heartrending vision of lost European Jewry. The essence of that potency can especially be heard in the single voice of one the film's interviewees, Lillian Klempner. Her memories are sprinkled with perfectly recalled Yiddish songs — everything from school prayers to work songs to songs of the Yiddish stage — and when her musical memories provide the backdrop for the film's visual aspects, it is as if the collective soul of European Jewry is crying out from the ashes of the Holocaust saying, "Hear us! Look at us! Consider what was possible! Consider what was lost!" Viewers of Image Before My Eyes will long find themselves unable to do anything else.

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