An Image for Our Time

Image Before My Eyes Directed by Josh Waletzky '68 At the Coolidge Corner, through May 23

Had never been to the land of my grandfather, so took the Red Line - Green Line route to Coolidge Corner the other night to see Image Before My Eves. Missed my connection, had ten minutes to spare, lots of jostling, didn't get off at the right stop. Found a seat, exhausted, as the opening credits rolled, to the jeers of restive spectators. Life is tough.

A RECENT New York Times magazine article reported that Vienna, once the cultural mecca of Europe, had grown deathly dull. The reason, it added, is that there aren't many Jews in Austria anymore. The writer noted that anti-semitism persists, nevertheless.

There aren't too many Jews left in Poland these days, either. A recent emigrant says the government keeps just enough around to justify its openly anti-semetic posture. After all, it helps to have something a little more substantial than circumstantial evidence.

There were three-and-a-half million Jews in Poland once. They shared a 900-year heritage, a richly diverse culture. Some served in Marshal Pilsudski's army, fighting for a free Poland and helping to repel the Red Army after the First World War. Some fervently believed in Zionism: others would die for the socialist Bund: still others thought "Nothing that didn't happen before should happen now." Some were orthodox, some reformed, most were poor, a few wealthy: many clustered in the big cities and universities, some lived in villages, and a few stayed on the farm. Some came to America, apparently taking the big risk of confronting a completely new milieu and abandoning comfortable customs (by late 19th- and early 20th-century standards).

As it turned out. America was the safe bet. By the end of the Second World War, scarcely a quarter-million Polish Jews remained alive.

IMAGE BEFORE MY EYES doesn't linger on the horror, although anyone's hindsight makes this movie's underlying tension all the more chilling. Instead, director Josh Waletzky '68 locuses on the culture built up over centuries by the Jews of Poland, and Images acts as a powerful affirmation of a people who clung to hope in the face of the caprice of Europe. Waletzky, together with co-producer Susan Lazarus, has produced a stunning documentary, digging up a wealth of stunning stills and creating an almost surreal setting. The eyes in the manifold black-and-white photos and primitive film footage peer out penetratingly. If the test of any documentary is its ability to capture mood and convey a message. Rabetzky and his cohorts have succeeded admirably--Image's subjects live and breathe.

The fine weave of the film is connected by haunting Yiddish melodies. Waletzky blends in interviews with Holocaust survivors, revealing the remarkably vivid recall each emigrant possesses. One elderly woman recites several Yiddish folk songs and prayers, and the mix of her voice with the photography brings us back to the old country. The narration, written by Jerome Badanes, is appropriately spare and unobtrusive. He usually avoids the temptation to moralize, and indeed understatement is what lends Image its unique force.

Image presents a candid mosaic of Jewish life in Poland. What emerges from the film's patchwork is a coherent portrait of a flourishing culture. Aspiring writers flock to Warsaw to study under Y.L. Peretz, the dean of Yiddish literature. In the town of Vilna, the Jewish community establishes schools for the mentally retarded and for orphans. In the shtetls, the townfold engage in lively commerce and conform to the letter of well-rooted traditions. The Jews are politically animated. The heirs of the Enlightenment try to balance universal values with continuing Jewish particularism (the "problem" of minority separatism is nothing new). The Zionists send their youths to experimental farms known as kibbutzim to train them for settling the Promised Land. Hassidim responded to the Jewish interwar political explosion by renewing orthodoxy. The Jewish Socialist Bund--"We're the young brigade of the proletariat," the children chant--stands at the fore of the trade union movement. There are labor Zionists on the left and revisionist Zionists on the right. Opposed to the Zionists are those who uphold the values of the Diaspora--the Jewish dispersion--and promote the cause of civil and political minority rights, supposedly enshrined by the Treaty of Versailles. Unified by tradition, the Jews were divided by geography, class and vision.

Several scenes stick out: The sorry-eyed children reluctantly munch on their morning bagels and milk: the sobering footage of World War I's devistation and of its wounded living in the pogroms: the spectacular sights of the bustling backdrop of the prosperous cities, the panorama of Pilsudski's funeral, and the sweeping shots of synagogues.

But it is the words of the interviewed accompanying the images that remain firmly embedded hours later. "We were poor. I asked for my mother for some bread. I said, 'I'm hungry.' She said. 'If you have bread, you'll be thirsty.'" "It was a stratified society. If a worker saw me dressed up, he'd tip his hat...But if three minutes later he found out I was Jewish, he'd spit on me. I hadn't changed in those three minutes." "If the world changes, we feel it." "On the trolley one day, a Pole told me, 'You see those buildings--they belong to the Jews...There will be a time pretty soon when we will own those buildings...'" This last incident occured in August 1939.

POLAND'S HISTORY, OF COURSE, is littered with irony. The Poles did not come to own the buildings. And Poland today is not a free country. The Poles escaped foreign domination for only the 20-year interwar period. After that short interlude, the Nazis and then the Soviets inherited the legacy of Austrian-Prussian-Russian domination. The Jews flourished during the interwar years in Poland as never before, blossoming culturally and politically. Image is a tribute to the fact that a proud culture cannot be eradicated, and as such deserved a tribute of its own.

Produced with financial assistance from the National Endowment of the Humanities, Image consitutes as good an argument as any for NEH's protection from the sabre of David Stockman. If President Reagan has any doubts about NEH's importance, he should see this film.

For the message of Images is not hateful, but hopeful. Despite the pall that hangs over this film of Hitler's indescribable odiousness. Image is a declaration of faith in man and in freedom. Danzig is now called Gdansk, and we don't know what June will bring. But where there is fear, there is hope, and it's too easy these days to dismiss callously the strength of diversity.

In 1937, when times were bad and life was tough for Polish Jews, the people of the small town decided to build a new school for its children. "...Opposition to the project was only a weak vacillation on the part of some...If we are to last through the crisis...we cannot let the spirituality of our children decline..."