The Jewish News of Northern California (April 17, 1987)

The photographs in The Last Jews of Eastern Europe bring about the realization that within a few years a chapter of Jewish history will close.

  The 199-page volume by Yale Strom and Brian Blue, published in January by Philosophical Library, chronicles the last remnants of what was once the center of the Jewish world. But gone are the yeshivot, the learning centers, the kehillot (communities) that kept them together. 

The poignancy of photographs contained in The Last Jews of Eastern Europe hints at the sadness of once-thriving Jewish communities destroyed by the Holocaust in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

 Blue, the photographer, and Strom, the chronicler, spent the winter of 1984-85 traveling behind the Iron Curtain, where they interviewed, researched, and photographed tiny Jewish communities in cities and towns. 

The two have created a portrait of people who cling to their heritage under adverse conditions, showing that lack of numbers does not mean lack of faith or commitment. The Last Jews of Eastern Europe, which costs $29.95, opens with descriptions of each of the 28 places Blue and Strom visited, giving a brief history of that city or town's Jewish community. The sections, divided by country, provide the historical overview and the contemporary profile of the town.

  Then, following several pages of text, the photographs begin. Strom's descriptions provide the factual backdrop to magnificent black-and-white photographs that pay tribute to the Jews who chose to affirm their heritage over and over again.

  Old people such as Zipporah Greenglass of Romania come to kosher kitchens to get a hot meal. A young Jewish soldier in the Yugoslavian army visits a Jewish club. Young and old jam synagogue services. 

Pages picture old synagogues in cities and towns, some in use as warehouses, libraries, museums — more testimony that an era of Jewish history is closing quickly. Yet interspersed are photographs of synagogues, such as the one in Debrecen, Hungary, that still is in use every day.

 Kosher butchers, rabbis, community elders cling to their heritage. Itzkhak Goldburger, 79, and Mordecai Goldburger, 81, work in the kosher kitchen in the courtyard of the shul in Kosice, Czechoslovakia. An old woman arranges with the shamash to recite Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for her husband in the synagogue in Odessa, USSR. Young and old study with Rabbi Yidl Weiss in the Beit Midrash in Miskolc, Hungary. 

And other pages show the younger faces, such as the two-page spread of a crowd listening to the reading of the Scroll of Esther in the Beit Midrash of Beit Solomon in Romania. Several young children are shown on their fathers' laps, and in the middle of the picture is a Jew, his tallit (prayer shawl) on his shoulders, whose resemblance to Danny Kaye is startling. 

The Last Jews of Eastern Europe could be our grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles and cousins, friends and neighbors. Their faces depict years of history, their worlds surrounded by elements they cannot control. 

They live according to tradition, as best as they can, and never lose the hope that things will be better for the future. 

The Jews behind the Iron Curtain have endured through the Holocaust, through hostile government, through hostile neighbors, clinging to the tradition of their forefathers. They are living history, living testimony to the undying spirit that is Judaism.