Snapshotsof German-Jewish History and Culture
Between Renaissance and Revolution:
Shlomo Zemach’s Das jüdische Dorf (The Jewish Village), 1932
Today, we would like to introduce you to two early Eastern European socialist Zionists: the author and agriculturalist Shlomo Zemach and the photographer Shmuel Yosef Schweig. Zemach and Schweig collaborated on the famous booklet Das jüdische Dorf (The Jewish Village). This publication was widely circulated among Jewish communities in Europe in the early 1930s, to inform about and to advertise life in Mandate-Palestine. The illustrated pamphlet was published in several languages, including German, French and English.
The Leo Baeck Institute London holds a copy of Zemach’s Das jüdische Dorf that is very likely to have entered our collection of rare pamphlets as part of the estate of our first director and first editor of the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, Robert Weltsch. In the 1920s and 1930s, when the pamphlet was in circulation, he worked as an editor of the leading German Zionist weekly Newspaper, Jüdische Rundschau, in Berlin. Weltsch was forced to leave Nazi Germany in 1938.
The author of Das jüdische Dorf, Shlomo Zemach was born into a highly respectable orthodox rabbinical family in Płońsk (Poland, then Part of the Russian Empire) in 1886. He enjoyed a traditional Jewish education before turning to Zionism in his early youth. Together with his childhood friend David Ben-Gurion, and only aged 14, he founded the Zionist youth association Ezra in Płońsk. Zemach himself was still very young when he moved to Ottoman Palestine, where he arrived in 1904, at the age of 17, and proceeded to work as an agricultural labourer for five years. A year after his arrival, in 1905, he was involved in the foundation of the socialist youth movement Hapoel Hatzair (The Young Worker). In 1909, Zemach moved to France to study agriculture, literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne and in Nancy. When he returned to what had become Mandate-Palestine after WWI in 1921, he started a career as a novelist and an educator in agricultural sciences. He wrote heroic narratives about Jewish farmers in Mandate Palestine, promoting a left-wing version of romantic Zionist ideals related to early 20th century agrarianism. Throughout his career his work won many literary prizes and he lived in Israel until his death in 1974.
The photographer who produced the images for Das jüdische Dorf, Shmuel Yosef Schweig, was born in the Galician city of Tarnopol (now part of Ukraine) in Austria–Hungary in 1905. After training as a photographer in both his hometown and in Vienna, Schweig emigrated to Mandate-Palestine at the age of 17, in 1922. At the beginning of his career in his new homeland, he worked as a photographer for the Jewish National Fund. He was the first artist to document landscapes and archaeological sites in Mandate-Palestine. Schweig became chief photographer of the Department of Antiquities of the Mandatory Administration and contributed photographs to archaeological collections at museums in Mandate-Palestine and later in Israel. He was also in charge of layout and images for the Encyclopaedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land and took some of the first pictures of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls find in the late 1940s-1950s. In the 1920s and 1930s his photographs of the land and the vigorous farm-workers labouring in the early kibbutzim and moshavim shaped the perception of left-wing Zionism in Mandate-Palestine across Europe. The renowned photographer died in Jerusalem in 1985.
At first sight, Das jüdische Dorf documents the development of an agrarian Jewish model village in Mandate-Palestine. Zemach vividly describes manual labour and the use of modern agricultural techniques in – to use a contemporary expression – ‘turning dust into fertile fields’. Shmuel Joseph Schweig’s photographs create the visual language for the narrative of a seemingly miraculous success – the pamphlet contains images of smiling workers who look upon their land and work with pride and joy. At the same time, pictures of the latest agricultural equipment are suggestive of the modernity of the emerging Jewish society in Mandate-Palestine. Both these photographs and the accompanying text are highly symbolic and navigate the space between revolutionary socialist ideas about labour and the notion of the return to the Promised Land. Socialist revolution merges with the idea of a Jewish renaissance in Mandate-Palestine.
The pamphlet resonated with a growing minority of young German-Jews in the late Weimar Republic who refused to cope with the surge in daily anti-Semitism that emerged alongside economic, political and cultural opportunities for Jews in the Weimar period. The photographs, romanticising an agricultural collective of Jewish pioneers in Mandate-Palestine, provided an appealing alternative to the prevailing limitations and a predominantly urban life in Weimar Germany.
Zemach’s and Schweig’s collaboration is a passionate response to the anti-Semitic experiences they had faced in Eastern Europe, translated into a highly political, emotive, poetic and visual language that expresses the desire to build a better, socialist society.
Shlomo Zemach’s Das jüdische Dorf is part of the collection of historical pamphlets within the Leo Baeck Institute London’s specialist library on German-Jewish history and culture, which can be accessed via the library at Queen Mary University of London.
We would like to thank Professor Ulrike Pilarczyk (TU Braunschweig) for lending us her expertise about early Zionist photography.