They are exquisitely ordinary family snapshots: six young men and women on the beach, playfully arranged in a pyramid; a bourgeois family flaunting its Sabbath best of fur-lined topcoats and rakishly angled hats; a dark-haired Orthodox mother with an infant cradled in her arms and her five children, three barefoot, lined up stiffly in front of a tumbledown shack.
There are dozens of other photographs just as posed and stilted, and strangers scanning them might barely pause for a second glance — except for one fact. Almost all these Polish Jews, rich and poor alike, would be dead within a few years, massacred in the Nazi camps or ghettoes or consumed by the war. One woman in the beach pyramid, a caption says, perished in the Soviet Union, searching for her husband as they fled the Nazis.
Elie Wiesel, when he saw this homespun collection, is said to have told friends that you want to grab these people and warn them: “Run away! Do something!” But of course most Jews did not perceive the scope of the menace they faced.
The subjects, mostly overlooked in their lifetimes, have been memorialized — “retrieved from oblivion,” as the collection’s founder, Golda Tencer, put it — in an exhibition of 450 sepia-toned and black-and-white photographs that will be on display starting tomorrow at the Yeshiva University Museum, in the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. The show, “And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews,” has been seen over the last decade in two dozen cities around the world, including Warsaw, Los Angeles and Detroit.
And I Still See Their Faces (Online exhibit)