Arrivals: Photography captures Holocaust survivors, Jewish identity

When he was eight, Vladimir Shraga brought home a questionnaire from school in Leningrad. His mother saw him enter “Russian” under “nationality,” and said, “It’s more complicated than that.”

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August 17, 2019 15:35
Arrivals: Photography captures Holocaust survivors, Jewish identity

PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN by Shraga for the JDC in the former Soviet Union.. (photo credit: ARIK SHRAGA)

When he was eight, Vladimir Shraga brought home a questionnaire from school in Leningrad. His mother saw him enter “Russian” under “nationality,” and said, “It’s more complicated than that.” This was the moment she revealed to young Vladimir that he was a Jew.

“It took me a while to understand what nationality means,” says the 38-year-old, who later legally changed his first name to Arik. “Our family is all Jewish, but a Soviet type of Jewishness where you keep a low profile.”

He came to embrace his Jewish identity as fully as possible. He sang in the synagogue choir for three years and attended a Jewish gymnasium (school) where he learned the traditions and the Hebrew language.

After earning a degree in computer programming, he worked for a publishing house.

“One day a photojournalist came to publish his book and we talked a lot. That person changed my life,” says Arik.
In 2006, he took photography courses at the Journalists Union. He then worked as a photojournalist for several publications and did personal projects for newspapers.

About 11 years ago, he embarked on a long-term project documenting disappearing villages in northern Russia that had collapsed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The young people had fled and the few remaining residents were holding onto their cultures and traditions by their fingernails. This project produced some of his most poignant images.
Arik and his wife, Zhenya, had a daughter in 2010. They made aliyah before her second birthday.
“My wife and I wanted a different future for our kids. We wanted a new experience and to challenge ourselves and start a new life in a new land,” Arik says.

Zhenya, formerly a philologist, retrained as a computer programmer. Arik assumed he would also have to switch careers, having no photojournalism connections in Israel.

HOWEVER, FATE intervened. Soon after, Arik read a book by a photographer working with humanitarian organizations and dreamed of doing the same thing “because that’s a rare area in photography where you really feel the images make a difference for the people or the causes you are photographing.”

He got a call out of the blue from the Israeli branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) six years ago. The JDC engaged him as a freelancer to document Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, where donor dollars are desperately needed.

“It’s not the kind of job you can find on employment websites,” Arik notes. “It’s only by a miracle they found me through some people I don’t know very well.”

Speaking from Russia on his 20th trip there on behalf of the JDC, Arik says this project “occupies a lot of my soul and my thoughts. They’ve sent me to places where it’s not easy to get to, like eastern Ukraine where the JDC did a huge job getting people out of the war zone.”

On his first working trip to Georgia in 2013, he photographed four generations of a Jewish family, all female, squatting illegally in the basement of a military college without electricity or water, in complete darkness, with rats running around.

“They had been living like this for two years and the JDC wanted to try to get them out and help them with their basic needs,” Arik explains. It’s difficult to step in and start snapping pictures in such a situation, so he tries to earn trust quickly.

“I can understand that when you live in harsh conditions and someone comes to photograph you it is somewhat awkward. I always explain that what I am doing is also meant to help others in the same situation. When they know that people are trying to help them and that I represent these people, their attitude is pretty friendly,” says Arik, whose visits are accompanied by a representative from the JDC or a local JDC-supported charity.

Arik also freelances for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (called Keren Yedidut in Israel), which has a partnership with the JDC. Both organizations use his pictures on their website, promotional materials and annual reports.
THE SHRAGA family, now including a six-year-old son, lives in Moshav Kisalon near Beit Shemesh. This 200-family community is a far cry from the Leningrad of his childhood – called St. Petersburg since 1991 – with its population of five million. 
“Our children are well integrated into the Israeli community of their age group,” says Arik. “We are not in a Russian community only; there is a very diverse population here.”

His and Zhenya’s parents are still in St. Petersburg.

“It can be difficult to be far from family, but we are accustomed to it.”

When he’s home, he works on a pet project prompted by his discovery at Yad Vashem of documentation about his maternal grandfather’s family, all murdered in the ghetto of Slutsk, Belarus.

“That was a complete shock for me. I never knew whether anyone from our family had suffered in the Holocaust. I believe for my grandfather it was just too hard to talk about. He died in 1994 but I remember him very well,” says Arik. “We found out his story by reading letters that he intended to send to his brother, describing his hardships as they happened.”

Arik chose to commemorate his grandfather by photographing Holocaust survivors with the help of the Association of Holocaust Survivors in Israel and a small grant from the Genesis Fund. About 1,000 of these portraits are being posted on a website built by Zhenya: survivors.gallery/

“After 70 years, you look in their eyes and you still see the reflection of the terrible things they went through,” says Arik. “They feel good that someone is interested in their lives.”

View Arik’s other work at: shraga.photographer.ru


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