Josh Waletzky’s 1980 documentary “Image Before My Eyes” has been reissued on DVD and it deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in Polish-Jewish history. Based in the period between the two World Wars and using a wealth of home movies, newsreels, photographs and posters, the resulting production provides a deeply poignant elegy to a vanished culture.
Roughly 90% of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Even before the Nazi invasion, it was clearly a difficult environment within a greater hostile world – Poland was a relatively poor country and the Polish people, with their deep-rooted traditions of anti-Semitism, were not eager to make life easier for their Jewish neighbors (who had actually been part of Poland for some 900 years prior to World War II).
Still, this period saw an extraordinary flowering of political, social, educational and cultural diversity within Poland’s Jewish community. The rise of socialist, communist, Zionist and trade labor movements galvanized the population, while the embrace of secularism was seen by many as a threat to religious traditions. Yiddish-language theater, publishing and cinema offered an artistic outlet, while these cultural venues also brought the world to Poland’s Jews via Yiddish translations of foreign works.
“Image Before My Eyes” interviews survivors who look back with a mix of love and rue at the Jewish experience. Many of them were children during that period and perhaps their view is tempered with more patience and emotion than the genuine situations deserved. Few speak with any visible bitterness of Polish anti-Semitism – it is just stated matter-of-factly. The fact that these people and their recorded histories survive provides a touching cinematic epitaph to that vanished world, for all that remains is the image.