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Majer Bogdanski, Tailor, Bundist, Yiddishist, Composer & Singer

February 14, 2018
by the gentle author

In the first of an occasional series, Photographer Sam Tanner introduces his portraits of Majer Bogdanski from his archive recording the Jewish community at the end of the last century

Majer Bogdanski

“These pictures were taken as part of my photography of the Jewish community in the East End between 1998 – 1999. When you carry out a long-term documentary project you always meet people with interesting stories and there are usually one or two who stand out. Majer Bogdanski was the most complex and vivid person I met. I photographed him at the Jewish Care Day Centre, The Friends of Yiddish at Toynbee Hall, his home and in the synagogue.

Born in 1912 in Pyotrkow-Tybunalski, Majer was a tailor in pre-war Poland and he confessed to me he was very poor. In the Polish army from 1939, he was captured by the Russians and sent to the Gulags. Majer described being unloaded from a train in the middle of Siberia, north of Archangel. It was a frozen waste, where there were no buildings, but they managed to build a fire and, although he reported all of the group he was with survived Stalin’s slave labour camps, many did not. They simply froze to death.

Majer told me he usually went without food at least one day a week in pre-war Poland. Consequently, privation had made him tougher than many of the others and he was also able to use his skills as a tailor to obtain more food. When Russia was attacked by the Nazis, he was sent to fight with the Allies along with the other Polish prisoners, joining the British Army in Italy. Only later did Majer learn that his wife Esther and most of his family were killed in the Holocaust.

In 1946, after the war, Majer settled in the East End where he worked as a tailor and learnt to play the violin. However, his love, passion and driving force was his love of Yiddish, which he sang. I remember, when my exhibition opened at the Jewish Museum, Majer asked if he could sing a Yiddish song and it turned out to be a memorable event.

He did everything he could to encourage and inspire others to learn speak and sing Yiddish. It seemed to me that his attempt to rescue a language all but murdered by the Nazis was Majer’s life work.”

- Sam Tanner

Majer Bogdanski (1912-2005)

Photographs copyright © Sam Tanner

You may also like to take a look at

At The Great Yiddish Parade

Max Levitas, Communist

Count Ralph Smorczewski in Whitechapel

10 Responses leave one →
  1. February 14, 2018

    What a remarkable man, and such a poignant story. Indomitable hardly seems sufficient to describe him.

  2. Amanda, Norfolk permalink
    February 14, 2018

    What an immense privilege to have been allowed in to the life, for just a moment, of such a fascinating, talented and brave man.

  3. John Barrett permalink
    February 14, 2018

    Yiddish music has that lovely bounce about it coupled with a harmonious voice over. These guys left a trail of their ancestry music from old mother Russia to the UK mainly by enforced movement through wars. Yiddish movement is here please we must keep its part of us now. Majer I have done my best for you up there. Shalom Aleichem no more darkness or shadows the light will always shine on you. John he’s a poet

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    February 14, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing Sam Tanner’s study of Majer Bogdanski. What a life! What a smile!

  5. February 14, 2018

    Endurance and exuberance. I would give anything to see a boyhood photo of this amazing
    gent. His smile reveals a “forever young” sense of delight.
    I will hold this story in my pocket all day long.

  6. February 14, 2018

    Thank you Sam for sharing your wonderful document of Majer’s life. I would truly love to hear him sing his Yiddish songs … is that possible??

  7. Susan Levinson permalink
    February 14, 2018

    I was nearly reduced to tears after seeing the photos of Majer’s sweet smile and reading about the loss of his wife & family members. What a kind-hearted man! I wish I could have known him….

  8. Susan permalink
    February 14, 2018

    To both Sam Tanner and the gentle author – thank you so much for this glimpse into the life of a truly unique individual. It is impossible to imagine how one might have lived through all the difficult and terrible circumstances he experienced, and yet continue on with such enthusiasm and grace.

  9. Lea permalink
    February 15, 2018

    How miraculous and wonderful that kindness and goodwill can manifest in him (and us) no matter how hard life can be…

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 21, 2018

    How amazing the human spirit. Despite all Majer went through during the war and especially with the loss of his family, his goodness and love of life shines out from these photographs. A privilege to have been able to read his story

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