February 17, 2005
Geoffrey Shannon (TC '04)
The idea came to Michael Marvins (A&S '63) during a family visit to Toronto in 1992. A fourth-generation professional photographer from Houston, Marvins was sifting through a stack of old photographs at his uncle's house. The dusty black and whites were taken by his grandfather, Zalman Kaplan, who worked as a town photographer in western Poland. The images were of the same time and place as those he had seen back home in Houston, from a collection of his grandfather's photographs that were preserved by Marvins' father.
"I thought it would be a great idea to take these photos and put together a family history," Marvins said.
More than a decade later, Marvins' family history project has evolved into an international museum exhibition and book, Lives Remembered: A Shtetl Through a Photographer's Eyes, which will be on display next March at the Newcomb Art Gallery of the Woldenberg Art Center on Tulane's campus.
The exhibition details life in the shtetl of Szczuczyn, a small farming town in Poland, from World War I through the Holocaust. The content of the images is of people caught in the act of their everyday lives -- nothing really out of the ordinary. And that is exactly the point.
Michael Marvins is a true-boots Texan. Lone Star pride springs from the walls of his Houston house. Bookshelves are stacked with Texas authors and histories. A line of photographs of Marvins as a youngster adorns the living room mantel. In one photo, he adopts a jaunty pose with Roy Rogers at a Houston rodeo. Another finds him dressed in his Cub Scout uniform during a camping trip. Throughout the house, original watercolor photographs of Texas desert scenes and roadhouses display Marvins' love for his native state.
Yet, within this 10-gallon lifestyle, Marvins holds on to a strong Jewish heritage, as the "Shalom Y'all" plaque dangling in the bathroom attests. A member of a minority in Houston, Marvins always felt comfortable in his surroundings. "I never had any problems as a kid, being Jewish in Houston," said Marvins. "The only time I remember thinking about it was during school, when we would say a prayer before class began. I would just stand there and let my eyes wander about, but so did all the other kids."
Marvins, who as a child attended a reform synagogue and celebrated the religious holidays with his parents, remembers questioning whether it was okay for him to sing Christmas carols at school pageants.
"My mom would tell me not to worry about it, that those were pretty songs anyway," Marvins laughed.
As a photographer, Marvins' father, Kaye, not only was keeping the family tradition alive but also had founded and was operating one of Houston's leading photography companies.
Growing up, Marvins would spend his weekends and afternoons in his father's photography lab at Kaye Marvins Photography, learning the art of portrait photography and the technique involved in the chemical development of photographic prints.
These were skills he put to immediate use when he arrived on Tulane's campus in 1959.
Between classes Marvins worked as a photographer for the university administration. Assignments were wide ranging and could lead him anywhere on campus. He learned that history could be recorded with each click of the shutter. A photograph he took of the brand-new University Center, which at the time included an Olympic-size swimming pool, now serves as part of the institution's archival memory, as the structure currently undergoes a massive facelift.
True to his Western roots, Marvins was a pioneer of sorts and was instrumental in bringing rock 'n' roll to WTUL, the campus radio station, which in those days had a talk show/classical music format. As a campus disc jockey, Marvins, who loved rock 'n' roll, wanted to send a little jolt through the airwaves. Soon local musicians like Bobby Mitchell, Lee Dorsey and Clarence "Frogman" Henry became staples of Marvins' radio show, playing in-studio concerts.
After graduating with a bachelor of arts in history, Marvins served four years in Germany with the Army. He returned home to Houston after his tour of duty and entered the family business. Twelve years ago Marvins took the reins of Kaye Marvins Photography, which today is one of the top portrait companies per volume in the nation.
As he stepped into the role of head of the family business Marvins would also take a step closer to his family's history.
Kaye Marvins, originally Moyshe Kaplan, followed his brother Fayvl to Canada in 1929 in search of economic opportunities. Though he left Poland at the start of the Great Depression, Moyshe quickly found a job with a Montreal department store.
"The hiring manager told my father that they loved his skills, but before they could hire him he had to change his name,"Marvins said. "He told my dad that if his boss found out he hired a Jewish person, he would be fired. On the spot my dad changed his name to Marvins."
Kaye Marvins moved to Houston in 1935, and started his own portrait studio. The only evidence of his past was the handful of family photographs on the living room walls.
Michael Marvins was always intrigued by the contents of his grandfather's photographs. They conflicted with his image of Jewish life in Europe before World War II.
He had assumed that all Jewish shtetls resembled the work of photographers Alter Kacyzne and Roman Vishniac. Kacyzne, a journalist based in Warsaw, worked with the Jewish Daily Forward, taking pictures of Jewish communities in Poland. Vishniac, a biologist and scientific photographer, worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other relief agencies to raise money for impoverished towns.
"It was 'Fiddler on the Roof,'" Marvins said. "They would photograph very religious Jews, because that was the only way you could tell who they were, because they dressed differently and looked different than everyone else."
After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, the works of Vishniac and Kacyzne, along with writer Sholom Aleichem and painter Y.L. Peretz, defined the "vanished world" of East European shtetls.
These images -- matchmaker girls and milk cart drivers, men in dark hats and beards, women in scarves -- were not a part of Kaplan's work, however.
"My grandfather's shots reminded me of old photographs of small towns in West Texas I had seen," Marvins said. "The clothes, the styles. You sit them next to each other and they look exactly the same."
Puzzled, Marvins turned to his father for answers.
"I knew we were from a little town in Poland and that his father was a photographer. But he never talked about it that much," Marvins said. "But then when I started doing this family history thing, I started asking him questions like, "Oh, did you have to stay in the synagogue all day Saturday and pray? Were there Cossacks running around town scaring people?" He would turn to me and say, "No, it was like growing up in a small town anywhere," Marvins said.
Town photographer Zalman Kaplan and his wife, Etla, pose for a self-portrait in the late 1920s. Kaye Marvins gradually, then enthusiastically, revealed his past to his son.
Kaye's father, Zalman Kaplan, learned his art from his father, a Russian photographer who worked mostly with the military. When one of the Czar's units moved to Poland in the late 1800s, the Kaplan family moved with them. Kaplan apprenticed with an uncle in a town called Zambrow, then set up his studio in Szczuczyn, where he worked for more than a half century as the town's photographer.
Kaplan's photos captured the everyday events of a typical small town: A party for friends headed to America or Palestine; school children dressed in costumes and fake beards preparing for a school play; soldiers, many of them Jewish, posing for a shot in uniform; families donning their best clothing for a group portrait.
Whatever the pictures failed to visually reveal, Kaye Marvins would fill in the gaps with stories. Everyone did go to synagogue on Saturdays. Afterwards, however, the boys would shoot over to a soccer field on the other side of town and play a few matches.
Girls kept up with latest fashions through magazines, changing simple gypsy headscarves to the latest Paris designs with each season. One photograph in Kaplan's collection has four girls posing with cigarettes and gowns, like 1920s flappers. Younger men wore suit jackets and slacks, no hats or beards.
Young couples would date. Groups of young people would make trips to nearby towns for dances and youth group activities. Camping trips, bicycle rides, and afternoons at the local swimming hole were part of everyday life.
On one bicycle trip to a nearby village, Kaye Marvins met his wife, Sonia. The two would meet again and eventually marry in North America.
"My mom would tell me about life in her town and say, 'We were just teenage girls, we didn't care about politics or religion. All of us had one thing in common, all we wanted to do was get the hell out of that town,'" Michael Marvins said. "It was a more secular time. A lot of younger people were moving away from the traditional looks and rebelling in their own way."
Kaye Marvins also remembered some of the town's gossip.
There was the story of the woman who resembled the American movie star Rita Hayworth. She married a traveling salesman, and when the salesman would go away on business, she would cavort with local Polish beefcakes. One time her husband came home early and found her in bed with one of her lovers.
"My father said it had the impact of the Monica Lewinsky case," Michael Marvins said.
There also was the Leibson family, whose son immigrated to the United States and fought during World War I. He was killed in combat in France, so his military pension was sent to his family in Szczuczyn. The family members in turn took the money and purchased a monster Italian Fiat bus, which they used to transport people around town for a small fee.
One Leibson daughter named Dora, in an attempt to immigrate to Mexico, married Leon Golding on a ship in international waters in order to enter the country.
"The thing that impressed me the most was that the stories were, for the most part, fun, everyday kinds of thing," Marvin said. "They weren't stories of persecution. It was just everyday, normal growing-up stuff."
Beyond the stories, Marvins could not shake the sobering fact that most of the people in his grandfather's photos, such as the Rita Hayworth look-alike, members of the Leibson family and countless other Szczuczyn residents, were killed in the Holocaust or by right- wing Polish groups.
Marvins' family, too, was scarred by violence. Zalmon Kaplan, his wife and two daughters were killed by Polish neighbors, who used the chaos of the German invasion to attack -- Polish neighbors who had, at one time or another, posed for Kaplan.
Using his family collection as a basis, Michael Marvins met with officials at the Holocaust Museum in Houston to work out a possible exhibition. Officials took to the idea and, in 1995, premiered the photographs to a crowd of more than 500 people. The exhibit, which was originally scheduled for one month, lasted seven months.
"One of the reporters who covered the story grew up in a small town in East Texas. He told me the photos reminded him of his town back home," Marvins remembers. "I told him that was the whole point of the exhibit. These arejust like small towns everywhere."
"Before the war, there were 3,000 Jews in Szczuczyn. At the end of 1942, there were none. They were all killed except 10 or 12," Marvins said. "You're looking at these pictures, and you realize, these people were killed just because of their religion. They look like regular people during this era."
A year after the Houston exhibition, Dallas psychologist and rabbi Murray Berger contacted Marvins. Berger, who had visited the Holocaust Museum, called to say that his mother in Miami also happened to be from Szczuczyn. Marvins met with Berger's mother and found that she also had a collection of his grandfather's work.
Soon after, Marvins met a man from New Jersey whose father was Zalmon Kaplan's photography assistant in Poland. He, too, had a collection of his grandfather's photography.
Motivated by these new discoveries, Marvins logged on to www.jewishgen.org, a website dedicated to Jewish family and lineage research. One evening after work, Marvins sent a mass e-mail to Szczuczyn researchers, explaining the museum exhibition and the search for his grandfather's photography.
"Within 20 minutes, we started getting replies," Marvins said. "They were from all over the world. Since then, it hasn't stopped."
Marvins has received more than 700 pictures from 11 different countries, including England, Israel, Sweden, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Cuba and Latin America.
He also confirmed many of his father's stories. One e-mail from Mexico turned out to be from the daughter of Dora Leibson, whose family owned the large bus back in Szczuczyn.
"I asked her, 'How did your mother get to Mexico?' She said her father immigrated to Mexico and decided to stay there. Because she was not a citizen, her mother couldn't enter the country so the couple got on a boat and married off the coast of Mexico," Marvins said. "I said, 'Boy, my father told me this story.'"
Marvins also learned that Leibson's descendant had a cousin in Australia who had the picture of the family's Fiat bus. A print of that photo was sent to Marvins, who retouched it on a computer to fix light and dirt damage. The picture is now part of the collection.
Through the international connections he has developed, Marvins also has brought together long-lost relatives.
One night while on the Internet, Marvins noticed a woman from France with the last name Kaplan researching Szczuczyn. He emailed her and discovered that while she was not his relative, she was a distant cousin of rabbi Murray Berger.
"I called Murray in Dallas and said, 'Murray, I found your cousin.' We've ended up putting a lot of families together, which I think has been the best part of this whole process."
In 1995, Michael Marvins traveled to Szczuczyn for the first time. The town matched Zalmon Kaplan's pictures, almost to the building. After years of Iron Curtain rule, the town had changed little.
With the help of a translator, Marvins met with several townspeople, many of whom also had photographs left behind by his grandfather and even his great-grandfather. He saw images of his grandfather next to town landmarks and near sites of Jewish centers that were destroyed by Germans and right-wing Poles.
Marvins posed at the doorway of his grandfather's house, just like his father did on the day he departed for North America in 1929.
"The feeling was surreal,"Marvins recalled. "I'm standing on the porch of the house where my grandfather lived and died. It was definitely a surreal moment."
With his expanded collection of photos and stories from Szczuczyn and around the world, Marvins contacted the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which specializes in telling Jewish family histories.
"I gave them a call, told them what I had and they went berserk, and said they had to have the exhibit," Marvin said.
"Lives Remembered: A Shtetl Through a Photographer's Eye" opened six months after the events of 9/11, on the night when the freedom beacons were lit to fill the New York skyline. The lighting ceremony was just blocks from the Museum of Jewish Heritage's front door.
Marvins said he was initially afraid that no one would attend the opening, but the fear proved to be misplaced. "They got such a huge response for the exhibit," Marvins said. "At the event, David Morganthau [the museum's chair] announced that the exhibit was the most successful in the museum's history."
A book of essays and photographs followed to complement the exhibit. Though "Lives Remembere" was a success, Marvins was unable to share the experience with his father, who passed away prior to the opening. Many of Szczuczyn's residents, who filled in the stories that Kaye Marvins did not know, have also passed away during the last decade.
"I started five years too late," Marvins lamented. "A lot of people I started talking to have passed away. The people I'm talking to now are younger and don't know as much, except what has been passed down in later years."
Last summer Marvins returned to Poland to attend the opening of "Lives Remembered" at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. The new exhibition, which is four times bigger than the one at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, will be part of the institute's permanent exhibition.
"The story needs to be told there, more than it needs to be told here," Marvins said. "Most of these towns were predominately Jewish, at least 50 percent or more. After World War II, there were none."
During the visit, Marvins traveled again to Szczuczyn and met with Polish high school students, many of whom had never before met a Jewish person. During the visit Marvin's 13-year-old son, Casey, snapped a portrait of the teenagers.
"I said, 'Here is my son, the fifth generation of my family to take pictures of Szczuczyn, just like my grandfather did with many of your relatives.'" Marvins said. "I thought that was a neat moment,"he added, and given the town's tragic history, it's astonishing that Marvins seems to hold no bitterness.
After the exhibit at Tulane, "Lives Remembered" will return to Houston and then head out on an international tour, including stops in Latin America and Australia. Marvins is working on a second book that will include letters from Szczuczyn residents through the German invasion in 1939. Also, Marvins continues to contribute to www.szczuczyn.com, operated by town descendant Jose Gutstein.
Marvins also is turning his attention to his own work, formulating a book of his Texas watercolor photographs. He continues to run the family studio and enjoys his life with Casey, his wife, Michelle, and his mother, Sonia, who is now in her early 90s.
"This is the final go around," Marvins said on the future of "Lives Remembered." "This is going to be the exhibit. We have enough variety now that, unless it's revolutionary, we won't be able to add it to the exhibit. This is it."
Though Marvins is moving on from Szczuczyn, he will still play a big role in the future of his "family history project."
"It started as a family history, then the history of the town, now it's a history of the Jewish population in Poland after World War II," Marvins said. "There were literally thousands of towns exactly like this. These are not only pictures of this little town but so many that are exactly the same."
Geoffrey Shannon is a 2004 graduate of Tulane College and a former sports editor for the Hullabaloo. He is currently a news reporter at Slidell Sentry-News.
The exhibition of "Lives Remembered: A Shtetl Through a Photographer's Eye," which will be on view at the Newcomb Art Gallery from March 9 to May 1, 2005, will help commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Jewish Studies Program of Tulane University. While still in the planning process at press time, the celebration will have several dimensions, says Brian Horowitz, Sizeler Family Chair Professor and the program's director.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org