Cover image for Poyln : Jewish life in the old country
Poyln : Jewish life in the old country
Kacyzne, Alter, 1885-1941.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt, 1999.
Physical Description:
xxii, 158 pages : illustrations, map ; 26 x 28 cm
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS135.P6 K323 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area-Oversize

On Order



Never-before-published, luminous photographs of Polish Jewish life in the 1920s by an undiscovered master.
In 1921, photographer Alter Kacyzne was commissioned by the New York Yiddish daily, the Forverts, to document images of Jewish life in "the old country." Kacyzne's assignment became a ten-year journey across Poyln (as Poland's three million Yiddish-speaking Jews called their home), from the crowded ghettos of Warsaw and Krakow to the remote villages of Ostrog and Brisk. His candid and intimate views of teeming village squares and rustic workshops, cattle markets and spinning wheels give us a privileged view of a world that is no more.
For more than sixty years, Alter Kacyzne's Forverts photographs-the sole fragment of his vast archive to survive World War II-lay unseen. Now, for the first time, the work of this lost master is restored to the world in a volume of extraordinary poetic force. At once ter and humorous, Poyln tells the story of a way of life and recalls the warmth and spirit of a community on the edge of destruction.
Poyln is sure to stand with Roman Vishniac's A Vanished World as a rare treasure, an indispensable portrait of a people.

Author Notes

Born in 1885 in Vilna, Poland, Alter Kacyzne was a Yiddish poet, dramatist, journalist, and editor, as well as a photographer. During the 1920s and '30, he was central figure in Warsaw's lively Yiddish cultural scene and his photographic studio was a local landmark. Kacyzne was killed in a Ukrainian pogrom in 1941.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

Two of these three photographers who demonstrate the vitality of eastern European Jewry became victims of the Holocaust, along with most of their photographs--but not all. Kacyzne (1885^-1941), murdered by Nazi collaborators in the Ukraine, was a key figure in the progressive Jewish culture of Poland--in Yiddish, Poyln. Playwright, poet, novelist, journalist, and ardent Socialist, his mainstay was his Warsaw photography studio. These aren't studio photos, though; they are drawn from 1920s documentary work for two New York Jewish institutions, the Yiddish newspaper Forverts and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Editor Web explains all this in the biographical introduction, then presents the pictures in chapters displaying morning activities, the marketplace, work, home life, recreation, and religious study in cities, small towns, and their surroundings. Those chapters are framed by "Approaching" (views seen when entering various Jewish communities) at the beginning and "Leaving" (scenes of emigration) at the end. Unbracketed captions are Kacyzne's and occasionally reflect gentle humor. Kacyzne was a real pro, and his work is tonally gorgeous, excellently composed, and except for a handful of stage-managed shots (still beautiful), convincingly natural. Kacyzne is not unknown and shows up in photography reference works. Mayer (1871^-1938) is altogether more obscure. A well-off middle-class attorney, Mayer shows up in records at all because of his proficiency at the difficult bromoil process, which gives photographs an etchinglike visual texture. All the images in the book are bromoil prints, which accounts for the way their background details, disdained by Mayer, evanesce into haze. They show people going about their everyday business in the streets of pre^-World War I Vienna, when the city was prosperous, comfortable, and happy. The harmony of Mayer's compositions, which Edward Rosser well describes in the introductory essay, reflects Mayer's pleasure in living in this eminently civilized city. One war would blast that civilization's security away, and the onset of the next would lead Mayer and his wife, old and unwilling to emigrate, to suicide. The photographic legacy of Mayer's and Vienna's heyday somehow survived to delight us in this elegant little luxury of a book. Vishniak (1897^-1990) is famous as the finest photodocumentarian of the poor Jews of eastern Europe, and his book A Vanished World (1983) is an acknowledged classic of the photographic literature. This smaller selection from his archive concentrates on children, primarily quite little ones. Most of the time, Vishniak has captured the child's direct attention; when he hasn't, the pictures show children interacting with others or accompanying adults. Each photo is on a right-hand page; across from each are the words, in Yiddish and English, of a song about or from childhood. An appendix reprints them with their melodies and more photos. Together, songs and images warm, lighten, melt, and break the heart, the last all the more so when coeditor Kohn, Vishniak's daughter, reports her father's remark about the subjects of his work, who he feared wouldn't survive what was coming: "I wanted to save their faces." He did, indelibly. --Ray Olson

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Mapp. xxv
I. Approachingp. 1
II. Starting the Dayp. 13
III. The Marketplacep. 35
IV. At Workp. 55
V. At Homep. 89
VI. Simple Pleasuresp. 107
VII. Pietyp. 127
VIII. Leavingp. 151
Notesp. 161