For the first half of his life, Holocaust survivor, Red Army veteran, and anti-Soviet dissident Joseph Schneider survived on a cocktail of dumb luck and moxie — a recipe which allowed him to become perhaps the only person to successfully photograph the inner workings of the Soviet gulag system.
Now, Schneider’s secret trove of photos documenting daily life in a Mordovian forced labor camp has been gifted to the National Library of Israel by his family.
Schneider spent four years in the gulag from 1957 through 1961 for the crimes of supporting Zionism and disseminating pro-Israel materials from his photography studio, in Riga, Latvia. In truth, the studio was really a cover for his illicit Jewish nationalist activities.
However, his dexterity with a camera quickly became known among the inmates and was brought to the attention of a guard who had been tasked with documenting day-to-day life in the camp. In exchange for the last two frames of each film roll, Schneider taught the guard some photography basics.
When Schneider was freed, he smuggled out a cache of photographic evidence, hidden in the false bottom of a picture frame. The archive was the likes of which the world has never seen.
“The photos are exceptional. I don’t think there are any other images taken by prisoners in the gulag anywhere in the world — it is unprecedented where you have photos like this that survived,” said Dr. Aviad Stollman, head of collections for the National Library.
“It’s stunning how one person was willing to risk his life to do this. What is unique is that most of the other evidence we have comes in the form of documents and writings. Sometimes it’s not even very exciting – but here, you actually have photographs,” Stollman said.
In addition to the gulag, Schneider documented his grassroots efforts to promote Zionism in Latvia. He also took photos of Jewish historical sites and instances of religious observance throughout the former Soviet Union during the Stalinist era. Then, such activity could mean summary execution.
“Any form of nationalism or religion was basically illegal during Stalin’s times, and the Soviets really suppressed any form of Jewish heritage or even learning Hebrew,” Joseph Schneider’s son, Uri Schneider, told The Times of Israel. “You could get arrested and thrown into the gulag just for having a Hebrew book.”
Schneider was sentenced to five years of hard labor for distributing Zionist propaganda, treason, and possessing illegal weapons, and ended up serving four years in the Mordovian gulag, Uri Schneider said.
Born in Riga in 1927, Schneider fled with his family on the last train headed east before the Nazis occupied Latvia in 1941. Ninety percent of the country’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, said the younger Schneider.
When Schneider returned to Latvia in 1944 after its liberation by the Soviets, he joined the Red Army, where he served until 1951.
After his release from the army, Schneider began to focus on sniper rifle training, and completed a prestigious sniper course. In 1954, he set the world record for distance shooting, said son Uri.
Under the guise of operating a sports shooting club, Schneider gathered about 70 young Latvian Jews and taught them about weaponry and self-defense, as well as about Zionism. According to Uri Schneider, his father was one of the first Soviet Jews in the early 1950s to apply to emigrate to Israel.
“Of course he was rejected,” Uri Schneider said.
Schneider filled out the paperwork knowing full well that the Jews who had naively done the same in 1948 thinking that Israel’s socialist government made it a natural Soviet ally were imprisoned, and many of them were killed. Schneider would repeat the process — and get denied — 16 times.
He was also involved in plots to hijack a boat from Latvia to Sweden, and to assassinate Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser on an official visit to Moscow in 1957 or 1958, said Uri Schneider.
The elder Schneider would be charged, but not convicted, for these crimes.
Both before and after his prison sentence, Schneider continued to document Zionist activity and Jewish ritual observance in Latvia by way of his camera.
“He really had a sense of how important this was historically,” said Stollman. “To light a Hanukkah menorah, for example, and then to extinguish it, is one thing. But Schneider lit the Hanukkah lights in his window and photographed it, despite the risk that this put him at should the photos be discovered later.”
After he was released from prison, Schneider also violated his travel restrictions to tour around the Soviet Union taking photos of Jewish cemeteries. Schneider traveled to Kiev and Odessa in Ukraine, what was then-Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) in Russia, and Latvia, amassing photographic records of the historic sites. Shortly thereafter the cemeteries were violated and destroyed by the Soviets.
After the mass destruction of Jewish gravesites, Schneider came back and photographed the devastation, providing a rare before-and-after glimpse at this facet of Jewish history. Many of the tombs he photographed marked the resting places of notable figures, including Jewish author Sholem Yaakov Abramovich, better known by his pen name, Mendele Mocher Sforim.
Changing tactics after the 1967 Six Day War, the Soviet authorities began to approve exit applications by the Jewish activists who were providing them with the most trouble.
Following the 1968 exit of fellow refusenik and activist Dov Schperling — whom Schneider had met and mentored at the Mordovian gulag — Schneider’s request to move to Israel was finally approved in 1969.
The Soviets thought that effectively kicking out the leadership of the resistance would quiet things down. In fact, it only served to further the movement: Jews streamed to Latvia, thinking that it would be easier to receive an exit visa there, Uri Schneider said.
His father and other refuseniks continued involve themselves in global activism, bringing the plight of Soviet Jews to the forefront of the international stage in the hopes of opening up the Soviet Union’s borders.
“My father’s friend Dov Schperling was very active in convincing [then-Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir that she should do something about Soviet Jewry, because she was reluctant to do it,” said Uri Schneider. “So he went to the United States and gave a series of lectures to American students in the early ‘70s, and a whole movement began in universities of Jewish activists demonstrating with the famous slogan, ‘Let my people go.’”
Memorializing the Iron Generation
Today, Uri Schneider, who was born in Israel in 1977 and speaks fluent English, is a founding member of the Iron Generation — a group of second-generation Soviet Jews whose parents demonstrated remarkable courage in fighting Soviet repression.
Uri Schneider says that the group — which has between 40 and 50 members, mostly in Israel but also in the United States — is dedicated to educating Israelis and people from the former Soviet Union about the heroics performed not long ago by those seeking the sort of freedom that is taken for granted today.
“Today’s generation doesn’t know anything about this — the Russians don’t know about it because they didn’t study this in the Soviet Union for obvious reasons, and then they’re not studying it here [in Israel]. So they don’t know their own recent history, which is quite amazing,” Uri Schneider said.
The younger Schneider spent years combing through and digitizing his father’s vast archive, which included troves of documents in addition to the many photos, following his death in 2006.
Uri Schneider says that he did not initially intend to donate the archive, which contains hundreds of photos, to the National Library of Israel. But, he says, it is probably the best place to house the archive while also using it to educate others.
Head of collections Stollman agrees.
“The National Library is not just amassing information. We are very concerned with how the material that we add to our collections can be used in the education system,” Stollman said. “There are over a million people [in Israel] whose parents or grandparents came from the Soviet Union. Some of them have been through those ordeals, and the fact that they can look at a picture — it means something to them. And so this is also why I think it’s so important from a cultural point of view.”
“This is one of the most interesting struggles in the 20th century,” said Stollman. “How a bunch of people, not very well-organized, were able to fight one of the largest forces in the universe, the great Soviet Union. And some even believe that it led to the Soviet Union’s collapse.”