Exactly how Vishniac, a non-observant Jew, gained access to so many Hasidic homes, synagogues and houses of study is an open question. Generally these communities are suspicious of outsiders and some even consider photography a forbidden kind of graven image. Nonetheless, he managed to open many doors and gain the trust to capture an important slice of Jewish life. In Munkacs he records that he happened upon a man, a cantor, who became his guide.
The image of Jewish Schoolchildren, Munkacs (1935-38), one of Vishniac’s most published, brims over with childish enthusiasm and curiosity, most probably due to the presence of the photographer himself. Yet the other narrative here of the clean-shaven man grasping the arm of the surprised yeshiva student echoes the kind of modern intrusion that the entire scene represents. It is a magical moment of revelation that only a highly sensitive eye could know how to capture.
Vishniac was an activist passionately dedicated to helping his fellow Jews by documenting to the outside world the terrors of living under Nazi rule. In October 1938 the SS deported 17,000 Polish Jews who had been living in Germany. They were herded to the Polish border and dumped in Zbaszyn and other border towns. Winter was approaching and conditions were terrible. Vishniac slipped into the town to document the conditions and then escaped back out to send his films to AJDC in Geneva to publicize the conditions.
He took a tender photograph of 11 year old Nettie Stub peering out from a bunk bed that was widely broadcast by the Red Cross. Later that year the Red Cross arranged for her to be rescued and brought to Sweden to safety. As I was viewing the exhibition I was told that Nettie’s granddaughter had visited the show and confirmed that her 86-year-old grandmother was still living in the Bronx. There is no doubt that Vishniac’s image saved her life.
He subsequently documented Zionist youth training in 1939 Netherlands, Jewish refugees and displaced persons camps in 1947 Germany and France, the vast destruction of Berlin among many other subjects. In his final years he returned to his love of biology, becoming a pioneer in the field of microphotoscopy. Roman Vishniac was a remarkable photographer and this exhibition deepens and expands our understanding of his work. His combination of a passion for documentation and a finely tuned aesthetic eye mark him as a modern master, the vast corpus of whose work we are just beginning to understand.