Maggs Bros Ltd

Album documenting Jewish life in Vilnius.

ANON. (1916 - 1917.)

£6500.00 

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Oblong 8vo album, containing 105 postcards (76 of Vilnius and 29 of other towns and cities in Eastern Europe incl. Grodno and Minsk), each measuring approximately 90 by 140mm. 74 of the Vilnius postcards are gelatin silver print photographs, the majority of which are in excellent condition (a few bear marginal creases and some light stains). A handful have ms. annotations to the images; almost all have ms. messages in black ink on the verso, along with postage stamps. 50ll.   

A rare survival, this album provides a visual record of the Jewish population of Vilnius during the Great War. Sent via the Deutsche Feldpost to addressees in Berlin, they are also a fascinating and atypical example of WWI Feldpostkarten; the field postcards sent by German service members during the conflict.  

From as early as the fourteenth century, the capital of Lithuania was well known for its Jewish community. Widely referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, even Napoleon referred to the city as the Jerusalem of the North. By the end of World War II that reputation had disappeared, as the vast majority of the Jewish population were murdered in the Holocaust. The German army, who captured the city in June 1941, took just over three years to extinguish a people who had flourished there for centuries.  

German forces also occupied Vilnius three decades earlier during WWI, albeit with a starkly different, peaceable attitude toward the Jewish inhabitants. As almost 100,000 Jews served in the German army, a number would have certainly been stationed in Lithuania between 1915 and 1918, and it can be supposed that they held a special interest in their people.  

For a number of German servicemen (Jewish or otherwise) curiosity of the shtetl extended to visual documentation; the dominant surviving examples being photographic postcards. Such images had the primary purpose of providing interesting visual material for soldiers to send home, but also captured the minutiae of the shtetl and thus, as a group, became an unintentional time capsule for a way of life. Forming a tiny part of the 6 million pieces of mail that German service members sent back to Germany (with postcards comprising over half of that number) these items are also significant for representing a fascinating, non-representative part of a “network of images in which patriotic, sentimental and nationalistic postcards formed the dominant narrative” (Connelly).  

In their book on the subject, Yiddishland, Silvain and Minczeles state: “Surprizingly, the most true-to-life pictures of the “Jewish Street” were taken by the roving German army war photographers between 1914 and 1918, only a few of whom signed their work.” The authors go on to note that while there were many civilian producers of postcards, “the majority of publishing was done directly by the military authorities with the ‘authorization of the Interior Ministry’ of each of the German empire’s various dominions ... In this way the army often took the place of peace-time publishers, providing the soldiers with postcards that reflected their everyday experiences in the field.”  

The present album holds a number of striking portraits: of Hasidic Jews in traditional costume, street musicians, tradespeople (including a professional knife sharpener) and children selling copies of the Wilnaer Zeitung. There are also quietly remarkable images of women harvesting crops, an ironmongery, a synagogue, and the Vilna Hagoan Hagodal gravesite. All are addressed to a Paul Simon or Martha Rothert, both of whom were resident in Berlin.  

The images are certainly scarce, with none appearing to be held in the Berlin Jewish Museum or the William A. Rosenthall Collection. We have located a single image (the Vilna Hagoan Hagodal Gravesite) in the Chronicles of the Vilna Ghetto archives.  

Connelly, S; Dispatches from the Front: German Feldpostkarten in World War I, OUPblog, 2014; Silvain, G & Minczeles (H); Yiddishland, Paris, 2002.

Stock Code: 212286