Visu­al Arts

The Glass Plates of Lublin: Found Pho­tographs of a Lost Jew­ish World

Lisa New­man, Piotr Nazaruk, Aaron Lan­sky, eds.

  • Review
By – October 31, 2022

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

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