Before World War II, Poland had a thriving Jewish community, much of which has since been lost. When remnants of this world return in the twenty-first century, the result is startling and mesmerizing. The Glass Plates of Lublin, published by the Yiddish Book Center, offers a window into one such community in and around Lublin during the period between the two world wars. In 2010, Krysztof Janus discovered over 3,000 glass photographic plates in the attic of a tenement house in Lublin. The original glass plates are small, four-by-six inches, and, surprisingly, intact after decades of neglect. Today, the original plates are on display at Lublin’s Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre in Poland; and over 150 photographs from the collection grace the pages of this oversized, coffee-table book.
Beautiful and spare, these black-and-white photographs invite viewers to meditate on the lives, thoughts, and spaces of their subjects. Many of the photographs are portraits, with subjects seated and looking directly at the camera or thoughtfully off into the distance. What were these people contemplating? What occasioned their presumably professional photographic sitting? These questions and others are left to readers’ imaginations. Other photographs show subjects relaxing, lounging on a hammock, swimming, and laughing on vacations. Some images reveal people working: carpenters, tailors, farmers, haymakers, and blacksmiths. Still others provide glimpses into religious life: students at yeshiva, men gathered looking at a wooden model of the Jerusalem Temple, a family dinner at home. Groups of musicians appear more than once in the book.
Collectively, these photographs remind viewers what was lost in the Shoah, but they also spotlight individual, albeit unnamed, humanity. Every page brims with dignity, struggle, joy, honesty, and presence. The Glass Plates of Lublin is a stark and moving reminder that most people live their lives with unspoken desperation and quiet grace — and to bear them witness is a gift.
Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sisterhood, and Handmade Love, and is the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.