Can You Sell Judaism Like You Sell Toothpaste? The Uproar Over Advertising Jewish life

How Gary Wexler's ads dealing with the Jewish world took risks and used controversial content to reach non-involved Jews

From the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

Can the story of a modern Jewish era be captured in advertising campaigns?  A generation later I realize that is exactly what we had accomplished. These campaigns are a creative and powerful window into the issues and actions of Jewish life at the time. They tell a story about our community in a medium, a creative one, in a way it has never been revealed before.

The storytelling began in 1988. It was two years before the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey in the United States revealed the 52% intermarriage rate that began to change everything— the way the organized Jewish community saw itself and focused its efforts. But we, a team of young Jewish advertising creative professionals, didn’t need the outcome of the survey to tell us what we already knew. Several of the young creative people in this group were married to non-Jews, themselves.

I was a creative director in ad agencies having won awards for work on clients such as Apple and Coca Cola. I was also active in the Jewish world. And this was the first time I had ever been asked to use my professional skills on behalf of the community. Jewish organizations, of course, expected us to be safe, not rocking any boats. But as young Jews and also as creative professionals, we knew we needed to take risks. Or the work would be dismissed and unnoticed by its intended audience—Jews who were not engaged in Jewish life. When people would ask me during this time what I did professionally, I would simply answer, “I find Jews.”

I never imagined the campaigns would one day become an archive at the National Library of Israel, a body of work that would live on in perpetuity for the Jewish people.

 

Clearing out my garage

Eighteen months ago, I was clearing out my garage to make room for the 1950s Lionel Electric trains that my father had set up for me, to now set them up for my grandchildren. I thought that alone would be my big emotional moment.

But while cleaning, I noticed the dusty portfolios of the ad campaigns I had created over the years. They were taking up a huge amount of room on the shelves.  I scratched my head, “Why am I saving them? For my kids to throw out after I’m dead? When my grandchildren discover that I wrote Coke jingles to help people rot their teeth, is this the legacy I want to leave them?”

 

Trash. Trash. Bingo.

I haven’t worked in advertising for a long time and I knew I would not be needing these portfolios to find another ad job (Besides, nobody in the ad biz hires people in their late sixties). And I certainly didn’t need to bring them to class and encourage my Millennial students in the Masters Program at the USC (University of Southern California) Annenberg School of Communication, to believe that this professor was living in the communication profession of the past.

So I opened up the portfolio of the Apple computer campaigns. Trash. The portfolio of Coca Cola campaigns. Trash. The Intel campaigns. Bank of America, United Airlines. Trash, Trash, Trash.

Then I opened the portfolios of campaigns I created for the Jewish world, between the years of 1988- 2008. I hadn’t looked at it in over ten years. A twenty year era of Jewish life poured out in front of me. Campaign after campaign added another piece of a story of how the Jewish world functioned and engaged Jewish populations in its causes during this time.  I realized I was looking at something historic: campaigns about peace signings, terrorism, spousal abuse (the first time the community publicly admitted it, causing a controversial uproar), Jewish men dying of AIDS, religious and political tensions in Israel and how the Diaspora was lining up on different sides, the blossoming of the foundation world, the centrality of Jerusalem, the murder of Rabin, fundraising efforts, Jewish day schools and every other need and issue of the times.

 

Never before a collection like this

I contacted my good friend, Naomi Schacter, the director of external relations and partnerships at the Israel National Library. She asked me to send photos. The Library responded within two days writing, “In fact this is very interesting to us,” and asked that I bring the portfolios to Jerusalem.  There were forty pounds of ads I had laminated over the years for preservation, which is how people in those years presented their work in order to be hired.  I didn’t let El Al take the portfolio out of my hands.  In June, I met, portfolio in hand, with the Library, specifically with Matan Barzilai, head of the archives department and Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the curator of the Judaica collection.  Person after person came into the room until there were about ten people from assorted departments.  I explained that in a time when digital and online communication is replacing traditional advertising and newspapers, a volume of creative print advertising work such as this will not again be produced in the Jewish world. The Library enthusiastically accepted the portfolio as an ephemera archive. They told me, “We have never before owned a collection like this.”  They then told me this archive will be among the works of people such as Gershom Scholem and Naomi Shemer. I had no idea what “ephemera” even meant, and I’m not sure I yet do.

 

“Marketing is too commercial for the Jewish world”

In the mid-1980s when I began this venture, it was a struggle to bring my marketing and advertising creative expertise, along with an intimate knowledge of Jewish life, into the organized Jewish community. At the time, almost no nonprofits believed in marketing. I was admonished by several prominent Jewish lay leaders telling me, “Marketing is too commercial for the Jewish and nonprofit world. It is crass. It demeans what we do.” But I was unrelenting in my persistence, and eventually broke down the resistance, establishing Passion Marketing and growing it to twenty-five professionals. Passion Marketing, the company I eventually created became the go to place for Jewish organizations in America, Canada and Israel, creating over one-hundred campaigns for Jewish and Israeli causes, while also delivering marketing, communication and creative training to thousands of professionals and lay people.

 

Breaking down the resistance

The first crack in the wall of resistance appeared in 1988 with CAJE (Conference on the Advancement of Jewish Education) held in Jerusalem and attended by hundreds of Jewish educational leaders, donors and professionals from North America and Israel. At the time, I was serving on the board of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. I had been constantly advocating for marketing and advertising as the way to recruit students and build a donor population for Jewish schools. Finally, I was asked to make a presentation on the marketing of Jewish education at CAJE.

 

Pulling together five creative Jews

I threw myself into the opportunity. I was creative director for an ad agency where there were thirty-five people in the Creative Department. Among them were five Jews, Sharon Rich, Moira Schwartz, Rick Rosenberg, Colin Shubitz and Aram (today Ephraim) Tabackman. I pulled them all together one night after work and explained I would be going to Jerusalem to make an ad presentation aimed at Jews just like them——non-involved in Jewish life (except for Aram)—-trying to convince them to send their kids to some form of Jewish education. I told them I would write the strategic creative brief but really wanted to see what ads they would create to target people like themselves. They enthusiastically agreed.  However, the first and last ads in the campaign I created myself, in order to set the tone for the kind of creative depth I wanted them to reach for and touch in the target audiences.

The ads Gary Wexler created to set the tone of controversy and depth for the campaign, the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

The ads spark an uproar, a controversy, and an embrace

Sessions at the CAJE conference had on the average thirty people. I walked into the room for my presentation and there were hundreds, sitting, standing in the hallways, crowding into the doorways. I realized at that moment people knew it was time for a new approach and believed that marketing may be the answer.  I showed the work on a big screen. The room erupted. There were people who loved the bold truths, the resonance and what was currently happening in the Jewish world. And there were those who were incredibly offended and shocked, denying the realities of the day and wanting to cling onto the Jewish world as they believed it should be.

 

My biggest battle

It was exactly the reaction I was hoping and prepared for. It led to the real conversation I wanted to have in that room. Advertising in the Jewish world, I believed, needed to the bold and shocking. If we spoke to our audiences only with the safe things we wanted to say, that made us feel good, our audience would not listen. We’d be talking to ourselves and the audience we so badly needed would not be paying attention. We had to be honest about the realities we were facing and show the target market of uninvolved Jews that we understood who they were. For twenty years, this conversation regarding many issues, convincing Jewish organizations and particularly lay people to take risks when promoting Jewish life, remained my biggest battle.

The uproar: Additional ads created by the team of Sharon Rich, Moira Schwartz, Rick Rosenberg, Colin Shubitz and Aram (Ephraim) Tabackman; the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

Front page story in Jerusalem Post

I had no idea that a Jerusalem Post reporter had been present and the next day the entire campaign would be the lead article in the Jerusalem Post with the headline, “Can you sell Judaism like toothpaste?”  It was picked up by the Jewish press in the US and Canada. And my twenty year advertising journey into Jewish life began.

 

The Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

Tell us what you think

Over the next few months, the Library will feature several of the campaigns. I will tell their stories, the reactions to them and whether they actually achieved their goals. One of the most startling discoveries I made when reviewing the collection is that many of the same issues that became the subject of several campaigns years ago, are still the issues today. The delivery system of communication through technology may have changed, but many of our issues as Jewish people have not. I and the Library will be extraordinarily interested in your reactions to how we promote Jewish life today and whether our issues will ever change. Advertising, as a medium, belongs to everyone. And everyone has an opinion. Tell us yours.  I don’t think any of you will be shy.

 

 

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Tolstoy and the Jews: It’s Complicated

A glimpse into the legendary Russian author's relationship with the People of the Book

Color portrait photo of Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, 1908 (Photo: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky; Public Domain)

Leo Tolstoy never gave the few Jewish characters referenced in his works names or individual identities. He almost did once, but changed his mind.

That, of course, does not make Tolstoy an anti-Semite.

One time he refused to allow Constantin Shapiro, an apostate Jew and personal photographer to the Russian royal family, onto his premises, later calling him “The Jew Shapiro” when referring to the incident. Despite converting to Russian Orthodoxy at a young age, Shapiro was a celebrated Hebrew lyricist who maintained close ties to Jewish culture and people, even leaving tens of thousands of rubles to Zionist causes when he died. On philosophical grounds, the Christian Tolstoy was apparently not a big fan of conversion in general. Perhaps it was that. Maybe he was just not fond of Shapiro’s lyrics. Or perhaps he was an anti-Semite.

Self-portrait of Constantin Shapiro taken in the mid-1870s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Tolstoy once said, “I have met and know a great many good Jewish people.” It was the “My lawyer is Jewish” of its day.

Many of his disciples were, in fact, Jewish, though. When one of them, A.B. Goldenveizer, once tried to run up a hill and subsequently fell, losing consciousness, his teacher reportedly remarked, “All this happened because everywhere Jews always strive to be first.” On another occasion, following a disappointing meeting with the well-known German-Jewish writer Berthold Auerbach, Tolstoy described the latter as “Nothing but a Jew”. It does not seem related to his verse.

Berthold Auerbach, not Tolstoy’s favorite interlocutor. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Nonetheless, Tolstoy also had a number of Jewish acquaintances and perhaps even friends, like Leonid Pasternak, the chief illustrator of his novels, or Rabbi Solomon Alekseevich Minor of Moscow, the famous author’s Hebrew teacher. Tolstoy very much respected Rabbi Minor and often frequented Pasternak’s home where he hung out with Russian Jewish intelligentsia.

Illustration of a klezmer band by Leonid Pasternak. From the Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Thanks to Rabbi Minor’s instruction, Tolstoy read the Hebrew Bible in the original, concluding that it was full of “minute, meaningless and often cruel rules,” in his opinion a contradictory faith to the superior Christianity.

“To study the faith of the Jews in order to understand the Christian faith is like studying a candle before it is lit, in order to understand the significance of the light which comes from a burning candle,” he opined in 1880’s Introduction to an Examination of the Gospels.

Tolstoy was not a black and white kind of guy, though. His views were nuanced and vacillated over time. Within just a few years, the “unlit candle” may have become an “eternal fire”.

In “What is a Jew?”, allegedly written by Tolstoy in 1891, the answer given to the question posed in the essay’s title is: “A Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the eternal fire and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the nations have drawn their beliefs and religions.” In recent decades, doubt has been cast on the essay’s authorship, though, with evidence indicating that it may have been written by someone named G. Gutman as early as 1871, and not published under Tolstoy’s name until 1908, when it appeared in the Warsaw-based Yiddish-language magazine Teatr Welt.

Nonetheless, around the time he allegedly authored “What is a Jew?”, he did in fact write the following words to Jewish journalist Faivel-Meyer Getz, “The moral teaching of the Jews and the practical example of their lives stand incomparably higher than the moral teaching and the practical example set by the people of our quasi-Christian society… Judaism, by adhering to the moral principles which it professes, occupies a higher position than quasi-Christianity in everything that comprises the goals of our society’s aspirations. Christian people do not possess any moral principles, and the result is that hate and persecutions abound.”

One of the most notable cases of “hate and persecution” abounding at that time was the infamous Dreyfus Affair, about which Tolstoy controversially remained silent. He also initially stayed silent following the brutal Kishinev Pogrom. He was a thinker and not a publicist, Tolstoy argued in his own defense. Nonetheless, ultimately he decried the pogrom as a “villainous act”, signing a published letter of protest to the mayor of Kishinev and even sending literary works to Sholem Aleichem to be included in a book dedicated to the victims.

Victims of the Kishinev Pogrom outside the Jewish hospital, 1903. From the National Library of Israel archives

When asked about his view on the Jews a few years later, Tolstoy responded, “I can only answer as the teaching of Christ instructs us to behave toward people who are our brothers. The more unpleasant they appear to us, the greater the effort we must exert not just to overcome this hostility, but to awaken in our heart love for them.”

Though perhaps less influential now than a century ago, Tolstoy has undoubtedly had a significant impact on Jewish culture.

“Tolstoy’s Farm” – the South African prototype for the Gandhian ashram – was bankrolled by one of many Jews who admired his teachings and worked closely with Gandhi in India. Around the same time, many of the most prominent Zionists studied Tolstoy and tried to live his teachings. A.D. Gordon, one of the most important ideologues of the early Zionist movement, was known as the “Tolstoy of Palestine”.

In 1928, Nobel Prize-winner Bertrand Russell wrote in The Forward that “Tolstoy is the nearest approach to a Hebrew Prophet that modern times have produced. If he prefaced his words by ‘Thus said the Lord,’ it would seem quite natural, for there is a convincing tone of authority about his denunciations, which makes it very difficult to disbelieve what he is saying.”

Thus said the Lord: “I have met and know a great many good Jewish people.”

 

Thanks to Prof. Brian Horowitz and Misha Beletsky for their invaluable input.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

 

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The riots of the "Farhud" in Iraq convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for Jews living in Arab countries in the 1940s

Girls from Damascus on a worker's farm ("Meshek HaPoalot") in the Land of Israel, early 1944, from the book 'On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria' by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)

She was a revolutionary, a passionate Zionist and among the founders of the Jewish defense organization Hashomer. She was also one of only two women in the group. It’s difficult to think of a Zionist humanitarian project in which Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi wasn’t involved during the establishment of the Jewish and democratic state her generation had always dreamed of.

Of all her various activities, her top priority was immigration to the Land of Israel. Ben-Zvi was especially concerned with the immigration of young women, as well as their training. These young women needed to acquire the skills that would benefit the Zionist project. While most people of her generation perhaps preferred to wait for a later opportunity, or perhaps were not at all concerned with the matter, Ben-Zvi saw great importance in bringing Jews of Arab origin to the ‘state in-the-making’, as soon as possible. When she identified a window of opportunity to realize this great dream, she immediately pursued it.

It was the events of the Farhud – the horrific massacre in Baghdad on June 1st, 1941, in which 179 members of the Jewish community were murdered – that convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for the Jews of the Arab world. Since access to Baghdad was practically inaccessible, “an idea had come up; to​bring young women from the neighboring Arab countries – Lebanon and Syria.”

The mass grave of the victims of the Baghdad Farhud, from the book Iraq, edited by Haim Saadoun (Hebrew)

Ben-Zvi met with Henrietta Szold, the coordinator of the Youth Aliyah organization, spoke with children who emigrated from Syria on their own and promised to bring as many young women as possible to Mandatory Palestine and train them in agriculture. Szold provided her with fifty immigration certificates (issued by the British) for the mission. There was concern that if she were to gather too many young women, the British would deny them entry into Israel.

From Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi headed out to Beirut. She relied on connections she had formed with Beirut community leaders during their visit to Mandatory Palestine and promptly met with Joseph Farhi. Many were opposed to the journey, arguing that “in Jewish homes in these countries girls are not allowed to leave the house,” and concluded that she would not be able to persuade the families to let the young women leave.

Despite the help she received from activists of HeChalutz, the Zionist underground organization, the task of swaying the families indeed turned out to be quite challenging: In many families, the father had immigrated to Latin America and mothers “looked forward to joining the head of the family overseas with their children, and, for the time being, were apprehensive about separating from the girls selected for Aliyah [Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel].”

“The mothers hear that I am looking for girls ages 13 and 14 and are already concerned about their future because at 16 or 17 years old they marry their daughters off. I reassure them, explaining that the girls will be accepted to the settlement project, where they will not be held back from getting married, raising families and bringing their relatives from Beirut to Israel.”

That was exactly the answer the worried families wanted to hear.

Jewish youths engage in group exercise, Damascus, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

From the moment she arrived in Damascus, Ben-Zvi was struck by the vibrant Zionist activity in the Syrian capital, which easily overshadowed the relatively dormant Beirut underground organization. She was impressed by the Jewish youth’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel, even at the price of bitter arguments with their parents.

The eagerness and urgency expressed by the Youth Aliyah representative alarmed the activists who accompanied her: They demanded that Ben-Zvi refrain from speaking Hebrew even inside the Jewish ghetto. Only at the home of the community leader was she allowed to speak freely. She spoke to the dignitaries in Hebrew and French and was pleased to see that “the idea of ​​bringing students to be trained on educational farms was willingly accepted.” After receiving unanimous approval, she scheduled a meeting for the next day with the high school students.

“On my very first visit we informed the older high school girls of the idea of bringing young women to the Land of Israel for training and study. When the girls were asked if they would like to immigrate, they all raised their hands enthusiastically. In the more advanced grades, most high school students were girls,  while there were few young men. I learned that the boys had to work to support their parents. The few young men in class immediately demanded an explanation: ‘Why? Why could only girls immigrate? What would be the fate of the boys?’ I tried to offer comfort: ‘Their time will come, too.’ During the long recess I felt that the news was spreading from one class to the next. As I walked through the yard, I was stared at, hundreds and hundreds of children were drawn to me, calling out, ‘Palestine, Palestine, Eretz Yisrael!'”

After sorting out the immigration process in Damascus, Ben-Zvi moved on to Aleppo, arriving in November, 1943. She was shocked to see the location of the girls’ school – it was adjacent to a Syrian brothel frequented by soldiers around the clock. She heatedly told the school principal, “the whole neighborhood is a symbol of diasporic dispossession.”

Parents in the audience at a performance by members of a Zionist youth movement, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

Just like in Beirut, Ben-Zvi was desperate to meet with the community members, who barely spoke Hebrew. And again, like in Beirut, she blamed the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for failing to send support for the few dedicated teachers of the community.

“On Friday morning, a sense of bustling preparation for Shabbat was in the Aleppo air. The Jews in the streets drew my attention with the words: ‘Erev Shabbat! ‘Erev Shabbat‘[the eve of the Jewish Sabbath]! And in the school classrooms, in every grade, it was heard everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ Those who mumbled in French, those who spoke Arabic, they all called out, everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ My heart, too, was filled with the spirit of Shabbat. And isn’t Shabbat as virtuous as the Torah itself? Is it not Shabbat that has kept the flame burning from ages past to this day? It is the eve of Shabbat even now, yet my time is so short! I must gather the candidates who registered at the Alliance, Jamiliya, and Bahsita schools today, on the eve of Shabbat. And I have already scheduled a parents’ meeting after the Shabbat meal.”

Ben-Zvi described the great pressure she was under to accept as many girls as possible: “And the list keeps getting longer; the girls are crying and their mothers are crying, and just like that – they have all turned 14 years old; including one who is almost 18 years old and another who is not even 12 years old.”

In despair, Ben-Zvi decided that “the age will be determined solely according to birth certificates” and girls of the appropriate age were chosen according to a clear criterion: “If they are fit for agricultural training and theoretical studies.” In order to not leave out any suitable candidates, Ben-Zvi herself conducted interviews with each potential candidate.

Ben-Zvi encouraged the boys and adults she met in Aleppo to immigrate to Israel illegally, as she only had enough permits for fifty girls. It was the same message she delivered in Beirut and Damascus. From Aleppo, Ben-Zvi returned to Beirut, where, with Farhi’s support, she gathered the girls from all three cities. Some of the young women were accompanied by Ben-Zvi herself and some by other activists. They were received in Mandatory Palestine at Ayanot, Petach Tikva and Nahalat Yehuda. It wouldn’t be long before many of the young women would become Hebrew teachers and immigration activists themselves. They made the journey back to their communities and helped their families immigrate to Israel.

For the rest of her life, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi would take pride in her projects, especially in the achievements of the young immigrants whom she helped reach the Land of Israel. However, one question remained in her mind: “To me, it does not make sense; how could we have neglected these Jewish communities that are so close to us, until now? Damascus, located just an hour from the Israeli border and Beirut, which is just three hours from Haifa!”

A family in the garden of its home in Aleppo, 1910. From the book Syrian Jewry – Pictures for an Exhibition (Hebrew)

 

Girls at the Ayanot training farm, a few months after immigrating to Israel. From the book On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)

 

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One Picture, No Words

The story behind one black-and-white picture, glued to a yellowing piece of cardboard

Was it torn from an old family album? The scalloped fringe must have been cut in a photo shop, as was customary at the time, when even a tiny photograph like this one, was given a lot of thought. Yet unlike family photos, which capture moments of happiness, we can’t see the faces of the men photographed here: their heads are lowered, their eyes focused on the straw brooms they’re holding. What are they doing? Who are they? Street cleaners? God-fearing Orthodox Jews (they are, after all, wearing hats!) industriously sweeping the streets before Passover? Then there are the arm bands – the white bands wrapped around their right arms raise suspicions. Is there anything drawn on those bands? Are those Stars of David?

The Holocaust Comes to Rzeszów in Galicia

Contrary to the well-known saying, not every picture is worth a thousand words. There are events so horrific that even a thousand pictures and thousands upon thousands of words cannot express their true essence, not even the brief caption scribbled in a hurry, on the back of the photo: Ghetto Rzeszów.

When our glance returns to the photograph, its contents are now clearer: these are Jews in Rzeszów, in the early days of the German occupation of the city in central Galicia. “In the first two days, the Germans did not hurt anyone,” said one Holocaust survivor about the horrors that took place there, “and on the third day, they recruited the Jews to clean the streets…” This must have been September, 1939, and at first the Germans’ disposition toward the Jewish population didn’t seem all that threatening: some bullying perhaps, search warrants and various restrictions, but nothing beyond the typical abuse the local Jews had grown accustomed to over centuries of wars and pogroms.

Perhaps taking pictures of this forced labor was part of a program of collective humiliation, an attempt to trample human dignity. Or maybe it was just an innocent photograph? Moreover, who was the photographer? Was it a German officer who was looking to commemorate brief moments of pleasure he derived from the grotesque spectacle, or perhaps a random passerby holding a camera? Could someone have taken the photograph secretly, from a second story window? The high angle may support such a possibility. One can imagine a fairly simple backstory: perhaps the photographer was a Pole, who was horrified by the incident and wanted to document the event. He could have developed the image in the local photography store, where an acquaintance of his worked. As always, he carefully cut the margins of the photo so that it would match the rest of the album. When the photographer gave the photo to his friend in the store, he may have told a little joke at the expense of the Jews – “They’re finally getting some work done!” or perhaps he suggested – “We should sweep them away like dirt!” Or maybe he remained silent, his lips pressed into a thin line, the look of a man witnessing the torment of innocents, soon be led to their brutal deaths. Perhaps he stared for a moment at the movement of those sweeping brooms in the hands of the victims, frozen in the camera eye. Their bodies, obviously sentenced to death, seemed still and motionless.

 

A Pair of Legs in the Left-Hand Corner

These are apparently the legs of an innocent Polish bystander who randomly walked by. It is certainly not a Nazi soldier overseeing the forced labor, since he isn’t wearing the typical high boots. We can’t find fault with the innocent Pole, who witnessed what was transpiring as he walked down the street, any more than we can blame the photographer who captured the moment through the window; they couldn’t predict future events! Even one of Rzeszów’s own Jewish sons, the Zionist leader Meir Ya’ari, then living in Kibbutz Merhavia in Mandatory Palestine, could not comprehend the extent of the horror. Ya’ari stated before his comrades at a meeting of the executive committee of the Kibbutz Artzi movement in 1943, “How can it be that a city like Rzeszów, that entire cities, are put on trains, burned in incinerators, […] within a few hours? Can our minds conceive such a thing, can our souls contain it?”

 

How Did the Picture End Up at the National Library?

Every piece of documentation must be collected. Every photo, every letter, every document. That was what writers, intellectuals and ordinary people all over Europe thought, during and after the Holocaust. If not, the next generations wouldn’t be able to comprehend what transpired in such a short time. One of those diligent collectors was Shimon Kantz, a Yiddish author, who during the Holocaust managed to escape to the Soviet territories, and after the war ended, returned to his devastated Poland. With endless dedication, he painstakingly collected every scrap of information relating to the acts of mass-murder and widespread abuse, editing the raw material and filing it away. This photograph is one of those collected scraps of information kept in his archives, which were later given to the National Library of Israel. The photo, along with the other items Katz kept in his archive, wouldn’t give him peace. Katz wrote and edited more than fifteen memorial books for various Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. When he immigrated to Israel, in 1957, he brought those silent testimonies with him, and despite his extensive literary endeavors, the photo continued to torment him. Therefore, when we look at this photograph, perhaps we should pause for a moment and reflect on the silent horror that it contains.

 

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