Breathtaking Photos Conjure an Extinct Jewish Community

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Unexpected shadings are revealed by Dojc, creating pictures of breathtaking beauty.
Unexpected shadings are revealed by Dojc, creating pictures of breathtaking beauty.Credit: Yuri Dojc
Hanna Scolnicov
Hanna Scolnicov

A breathtaking exhibition of photographs is currently on display, or rather almost hidden, at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Only few visitors, coming to Van Leer on other business, get to see it. In the absence of any media coverage, it is only through word of mouth that anyone has heard of it.

Displayed are blow-ups of sacred Jewish books, falling apart and covered with dust, books that were left behind by the Jewish inhabitants of the small Slovak town of Bardejov, when deported to Auschwitz in 1942. The photographer Yuri Dojc found these books in the abandoned school adjacent to the synagogue, when he returned to Slovakia for his father’s funeral. Enchanted by the beauty he saw in these decaying old books and scrolls, and always carrying about him his camera, Dojc couldn’t stop taking pictures of them. 

Together with Katya Krausova, the curator of the exhibition and producer of the film that accompanies it, these pictures have become a private commemoration project of the Jewish culture of Slovakia. The two emigrated from Slovakia in 1968, Dojc settling in Toronto, Krausova in London. 

Alongside the photographs of the disintegrating books hang pictures of exquisitely beautiful synagogues falling into disrepair, desecrated and broken tombstones, and entwined and twisted phylactery straps. And on the far side, a little removed from the main exhibition of the decaying objects, is a portrait gallery of the few survivors who came back from the camps. Perhaps the most striking is the photograph of the white-haired woman, whose one leg has been amputated, celebrating her 100th birthday. 

In the documentary created by Krausova and Dojc, Dojc states in his understated, warm humor that she is his oldest girlfriend. Indeed, his loving photographs manage to portray this old woman as a touching beauty, and do not ask for the spectator’s pity. 

The extraordinary “Last Folio” exhibition at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Credit: Yuri Dojc

In general, this exhibition is in no way morbid, avoiding the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead, it is an elegy lamenting the demise of a great culture that was willfully and viciously destroyed. A dialogue is set up between the portraits and inanimate objects, endowing the latter with a human dimension.

But at the heart of the exhibition are the images of the books and scrolls. From a treasure trove of Jewish culture, they seem to grow back into nature, disintegrating and returning to their material origins. Moldy scrolls appear like cut tree trunks that display their age-rings. Book spines turn into tree barks and their ends unravel into a feathery bluish down. Books return to being codices, in the etymological sense of trunks of trees, blocks of wood that hold the pages together. 

In other photographs, not included in the present exhibition (which I saw in an earlier exhibition, in England), aged books curve into giant conches. The books were made out of these material origins, and unto them do they now return. 

Unexpected shadings of color and textures are revealed by Dojc, sometimes making it difficult to identify the objects photographed and creating abstract pictures of breathtaking beauty. This is great art that needs no interpretation.

The extraordinary “Last Folio” exhibition at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Credit: Yuri Dojc

“Last Folio,” the inspired title of the exhibition, coined by Krausova, is untranslatable. The literal Hebrew translation, “Hafolio ha’aharon,” is meaningless for the Hebrew speaker, while his English counterpart associates this immediately with Shakespeare’s First Folio, the precious first collected plays edition of the dramatist, published in 1623. The Last Folio presents the calamity that happened to Jewish culture, the catastrophic destruction of the so-called Jewish bookcase and perhaps, in order to make sense to the Israeli spectator, this is what the title of the present exhibition should have been. 

These captivating photographs have already been exhibited, in varying formats and selections, all over the world: including in the Jewish Museum in New York and the United Nations building there, in Washington, at different American universities, in Moscow, Riga, Rome, Berlin, Brussels, San Paulo, Toronto and various cities in Slovakia. After many trials, they have finally found a place also in Israel, although it would have been preferable if this place were a little more central and accessible.  

I myself was fortunate enough to acquaint myself with these pictures in 2009, when they were exhibited in Cambridge, England. The particular space was crucial to their impact, as that exhibition (and each exhibition is carefully tailored to its location!) took place in the impressive old library of Gonville and Caius College, among bookcases of carefully preserved books, looked after with the most advanced scientific techniques of our time. 

The extraordinary “Last Folio” exhibition at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Credit: Yuri Dojc

The contrast between the respect accorded to these books, kept in closed bookcases, and the images of the crumbling and dusty books that contained at one time the Jewish culture of Slovakia, endowed the exhibition with added depth and meaning. The beauty and power of the photographs was so striking that even the college porters, guarding the precious English books as well as the exhibition, were visibly excited, coming to share with me their views on the pictures when they saw that I had returned for a second and third visit. 

Finally, one cannot help mentioning the photograph of the title page of a prayer book, found fortuitously, on which appears the stamp of one Jakab Deutsch, tailor. Deutsch (later changed to Dojc), who did not come back from the camps, was the photographer’s grandfather. Except for a single photograph of his grandfather walking beside his father at the latter’s wedding, this is the only keepsake Yuri has of his grandfather. 

This extraordinary exhibition is interesting on a number of levels: as a mute historical testimony, as a metaphor for the Holocaust and for its purely aesthetic quality. How wonderful that it has finally arrived at home, in Jerusalem. Anyone who will see it will always treasure it – and through it, will remember the Jewish community that was wiped out and all that remains of it. 

Please be advised that the exhibition will be open only until December 15. The exhibition that documents the disintegrating books is itself documented in a book published by Random House.

The writer is Professor Emerita at the Department of Theater Studies, Tel Aviv University.