We tend to think of early 20th-century Jewish migration as a one-way street. But a New York City exhibition shows a different story—in film.
Between the wars, some of those emigres traveled back to Europe and captured the old country in remarkable amateur films which are the raw material for “Letters to Afar,” a collaborative installation between Hungarian media artist Peter Forgacs and the Klezmatics, presented by YIVO and the Museum of the City of New York.
In the gallery, films projected onto nine floor-to-ceiling screens give the illusion of entering a two-dimensional city, or a kind of silent, early video chatroom. A religious man passes on a busy street with his hand over his face; a delighted little girl shakes two recently slaughtered chickens; in a small town, women coyly apply lipstick. The novelty of the camera is sometimes apparent: some people sit as if for a photograph, and others peer into the lens as though they had lost something.
Forgacs plays with time, sometimes juxtaposing several projections of the same film at different paces. The Klezmatics’ original score lends a sometimes joyous, sometimes mournful tone, but the exhibition is not a eulogy. It’s an opportunity to look into someone’s face, someone’s life, across three great sources of distance: space, time, and the knowledge of what comes next.