And If A Voice Was Heard
by Amanda Gorence
Loli Kantor reminds us of the power of the photograph; the life it breathes, the destruction it stills. Her body of work, And If A Voice Was Heard, is a collection of black and white photographs anchored in history, loss and survival. Balanced with a personal exploration of her own roots, Kantor documents the complexities and remnants of Jewish life in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust and a tumultuous century of the rise and fall of the Soviet era.
Kantor was born in Paris in 1952, after World War II. Her parents were Polish Jews and had both survived the Holocaust. Her mother died in childbirth with her, and after spending 9 months in Paris, Kantor moved to Tel Aviv, Israel with her older brother and father. She grew up both in Buffalo, New York from the ages of 4-8 and in Israel before settling in Fort Worth, Texas in the mid-80s. Working in Texas as a physical therapist for 28 years, Kantor picked up the camera only 10 years ago. Self-taught, and with the help of workshops, her first project was capturing the world of theater, which she is still very passionate about.
In 2004, her art took a new direction, one fueled by personal history and an exploration she had contemplated for some time. Kantor traveled to Krakow, Poland to participate in a reclamation project in Plaszow, a former Nazi labor camp built over three Jewish cemeteries. Digging in the dirt, she uncovered original pre-camp Jewish gravesites. It was here her quest for information began, igniting a journey into Eastern Europe’s narrative of destruction, death, absence and grief. And If A Voice Was Heard catalogs Kantor’s work from 2004-2007.
She chose to create the works in black and white, explaining that “it was contemplative for me— a mood— definitely a mood. I also used many different formats of cameras— anything that would serve for the project, I would embrace immediately.” Printed in gelatin silver, the work is a poignant archive of survivors, empty synagogues, dilapidated monuments, and the faces, hands and homes of a generation old and new. Intrigued and inspired from her initial trip in 2004, Kantor would spend the next three years traveling back and forth from the U.S. to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Ukraine.
Initially, Kantor had little information about her immediate family, most of whom had perished during the Holocaust. She knew her mother had survived the war with Aryan papers, but knew little else. In Poland, she traveled to both her mother’s and father’s hometown. She researched city archives and made contacts with locals along the way. “It was sort of scraping the surface, but it was really important,” says Kantor. “I visited many places and focused on the Jewish landscape; looking at what is there, what isn’t there, what memories still remain.”
While Poland was home to newer Jewish communities and those seeking to revive the culture, the landscape in Ukraine was much different. In Ukraine, she encountered more traditional communities, an older Jewish population who had stayed after the Holocaust. Kantor reminds us that these places are all also post-Soviet, and that the remnants of that past era are still very present. Ukraine gave Kantor a new experience and education. Her instincts brought her to Drohobych, a small town of importance to Jewish historians and scholars located on the border of Ukraine and Poland. Drohobych became one of the places Kantor frequented the most. “My first goal was to meet Jewish survivors, and to photograph them, visit their homes, and to interview them. A whole world was unveiled to me; how the synagogues looked and how very few people remain. The large synagogues 50 years ago are now almost empty inside because there is nobody to use them anymore,” Kantor says.
As in “Empty Synagogue,” her panoramic interiors and exteriors reflect this change and bring us right into the space. Photographically, the detail, tones and texture are striking. e view captures the expanse and emptiness both literally and metaphorically, while the stark reality of what’s missing here counteracts the light coming in through each window, reminding us of the world outside.
Kantor’s portraits further develop these ideas on a more intimate level. In “Yvgenia Ruda, Survivor,” Kantor captures the complexities of her story; the layers of generation and history, the poignance of memory, while the photo within a photo marks the duality of survival and loss. There are also numerous images that reflect what is happening now and the daily life of her subjects. The tiny bowl in “Table Salt” holds a lot of information. The finger impressions in the salt bring us back to the present. The salt bowl and tablecloth underneath become cultural artifacts the viewer attributes to life, place, and home.
Kantor moves to the current generation with the portrait, “Veronika Shreyer.” Veronika is the granddaughter of Alfred Shreyer, a survivor and world class Yiddish singer and violin player from Drohobych. Like many others, she and her parents moved to Frankfurt after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the photograph, she is sitting in her grandfather’s home in Drohobych. Amidst a backdrop of history and generations past, Veronika represents the possibilities of the future.
Kantor lives up to being a true documentarian, but one that transcends mere objective observation. There is an undeniable and powerful truth behind each image. She allows the viewer an intimate look into the cultural and historical landscape of Eastern Europe, while bringing the people to the forefront, in efforts to “have more of a community portrait; a deeper understanding,” says Kantor. The work unites a spectrum of concepts: history with future, past with present, loss with survival, and most importantly, death with will and hope. Will is especially sacred and universal; Kantor expresses “how people continue a life, and how life is strong. These people have suffered tremendous absence of what was dear to them, and they keep going. I think that’s the message.” Within a body of work so resonant with memory and what once was, Kantor also asks us to imagine what is to come.