Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

More than any photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) profoundly shaped present-day impressions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust and during the early years of the descent of the shadow of Nazism over Europe. The enduring importance of his iconic work is perhaps best expressed by legendary photographer Edward Steichen:

Vishniac came back from his trips to Eastern Europe in the 1930s with a collection of photographs that has become an important historical document, for it gives a last-minute look at the human beings he photographed just before the fury of Nazi brutality exterminated them. Vishniac took with him on this self-imposed assignment – besides this or that kind of camera and film – a rare depth of understanding and a native son’s warmth and love for his people. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place.

Portrait of Vishniac with his camera.

Although Vishniac’s legacy remains his unforgettable photographs of European shtetl life through the 1930s, he was also a renowned portraitist, his most famous subjects including Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall. An extraordinary polymath, he was also a gifted biologist and zoologist (he taught at Yeshiva University and Brooklyn College), numismatist, art collector, and teacher of art history.

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Vishniac made important scientific contributions to photo-microscopy and time-lapse photography, including particularly with respect to photographing living insects. He also developed a colorization method that employs polarized light to penetrate cell structure formations that greatly improved image detail. His specialization in marine microbiology and the anatomy of organisms was primarily to find better photographic techniques, but he nevertheless made important scientific contributions in these areas.

Vishniac’s obsession with Jewish history in general and with his family’s history in particular began early in his childhood, as he absorbed his grandfather’s stories about the history of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement. His great-grandparents redeemed Jewish boys conscripted by Tsar Nicholas I, who undertook to convert them to Christianity, and he taught them how to remain Jews. This family history made a particularly strong impression on the young Roman, and the image of these events remained with him throughout his life.

Although born in Russia into a prosperous Jewish family, and notwithstanding his love for his ancestors and for his people, Vishniac was himself wholly non-observant; in fact, he did not believe in any religion and claimed to be non-denominational. Notwithstanding his loving portrayals of rabbanim, cheder boys, and the Orthodox/Chasidic/Chareidi way of life in general, he became very upset with the Observant Jews whom he wished to photograph during his journeys through Eastern Europe. Based upon biblical and Talmudic prohibitions against making graven images, they refused to be photographed, making his already difficult job even more challenging, as he was forced to conceal his activities not only from the local authorities but also from his subjects. Noting that the Torah existed for thousands of years before the camera had been invented, he asserted that a photograph was not a “graven image” – a position that has been adopted today even by most chareidim.

Vishniac’s activities in support of Jews began at the commencement of WWI when he was only 18. Decades before the Holocaust, the Jews of the Pale were accused of being Russian spies and hundreds of thousands of them were transported in cattle cars without food or water, and he collected money for them and tried to save them.

Living in Germany – Vishniac’s family had moved to Berlin in 1918 because of anti-Semitism and he followed them there two years later after completing his studies – he recognized early on that Hitler intended to exterminate all the Jews and, as he put it, “I was unable to save my people, only their memory.” As he writes with some bitterness, not only did most of his associates and acquaintances refuse to join in his efforts to save Jews, but they also urged him to cease his photography project because of the danger; “a man with a camera was always suspected of being a spy.” One notable exception was Joachim Prinz, a rabbi and Zionist leader who bravely and openly condemned Hitler and supported Vishniac’s efforts.

The danger, however, was indeed real. Vishniac was forced to use a hidden camera at a time when even in the best of circumstances, sophisticated photographic technology had not yet been developed, making his photographs all the more stunning and impressive. He took over 16,000 photos but was able to save only some 2,000 negatives by sewing them into his clothing when he left for the United States in 1940. Most of his negatives were left with his father in France, who hid them under floorboards and behind picture frames, and some of these were later smuggled out through Cuba by his good friend, Walter Bierer.

Although he had begun photographing Polish and German street life in the early 1920s, Vishniac’s project began in earnest in 1935 when, as part of its fund-raising drive to help generate support from wealthy Jews for poor Jewish communities, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee commissioned him to record Jewish life in Eastern Europe. He spent four years traveling through the shtetls of Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia, usually posing as a traveling fabric salesman or as a local Jew. However, he often assumed different identities in response to the circumstances; for example, to capture his images of Kristallnacht, he dressed as a Nazi storm trooper and covertly took his photographs as he goose-stepped through Berlin. Under cover of night, he would sneak down to the riverside to develop his negatives or find other ways to protect his work.

Vishniac was often arrested by the police who, suspicious of his photography activities, believed that he was a spy, and he would sometimes have to bribe guards not only to release him but also to return his camera. He was finally forced to leave Europe in late summer 1940 when, upon his arrival in Paris, he was arrested by Marshal Pétain’s police and interned at a deportation camp in France. His wife worked with the AJDC to bribe the Vichy authorities to secure his release after three months and to get him a visa that enabled him and his family to escape through Spain to the United States.

Cover of the author’s original copy of A Vanished World.
Relying on Vishniac’s work in designing Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg filmed scenes at sites made familiar by the book.

Perhaps his seminal and most poignant work was A Vanished World (1983), the first book to present a comprehensive selection of his photographs of a life that would soon be lost forever. He soulfully and lovingly portrays the shtetls and small towns of Eastern Europe, Jewish peddlers and homeless beggars, young cheder children and rabbinical students, rabbanim giving shiurim in dark basements, hungry and cold children, village elders and ordinary citizens doing anything they can to stay alive . . . the list goes on.

Sara in bed, flowers on the back wall.
One of Vishniac’s best-known photos, this image was printed on charity tins and circulated to collect donations to help Jews.

Vishniac’s comments accompanying his photographs can be painful to read. For example, in one of his most famous prints, in which he captures Sara, a beautiful and mournful child under a blanket, he writes that she had to stay in bed all winter because her home lacked heating, and “her father painted the flowers for her (on the back wall), the only flowers of her childhood.” [See exhibit]. In another shot of a young child in a window, he writes that she had to stay indoors for the entire winter because there was no money to buy her shoes. In a photo of an obviously agitated religious couple walking through the street, he writes that the man was fired after twenty years because he was a Jew, and in another, a Jewish storekeeper has been locked out of his store, he writes, because of the boycott of Jewish merchants. A little girl sits alone in front of a hovel because, as he explains, her mother is out looking for work while, in another photo of a little boy sitting alone in Warsaw, Vishniac explains that his mother is away working in Lodz.

The Cheder in Slonim (1938), my personal favorite Vishniac photo.

The composition is a magnificent and emotional work of art, as the lighting from the window illuminates the cherubic face of the melamed, as he gazes with unmitigated love and good cheer upon his young charges. At the center of this unforgettable photograph is a rascal with an angelic face who apparently has more important things to do than to pay attention to his rebbe.

It is no mere happenstance that A Vanished World was published at a time when WWII studies began to emphasize the Holocaust which, with survivors beginning to die out, took on increased importance. Vishniac explains his motivation for his work as follows:

Why did I do it? A hidden camera to record the way of life of a people who had no desire to be captured on film may seem strange . . . Was it insane to cross into and out of countries where my life was in danger every day? It had to be done. I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight . . . I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not disappear.

However, noble and important as that purpose may have been, his motive was far more than to preserve “a vanished world.” He used his photographs to increase awareness in America and the western world of Nazi persecution and Hitler’s extermination plans for the Jewish people. In one notable instance, he snuck into a German internment camp where Jews were sent to await deportation to Poland and, after a close call and a dangerous escape, he sent his photographs to the League of Nations in Geneva to prove the existence of such camps, but the League took no action.

Similarly, after escaping to America, he wrote to FDR in 1942 and included a gift of five of his photographs, but he was blown off with a perfunctory acknowledgment and, as we now know, the president refused to take any action to save Jews. He also wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to invite her to an exhibition of his work at Columbia University a year later, but his gesture was ignored.

Isaac Street in Kazimierz (Cracow) in the snow.
This is a classic example of the New York Times’s characterization of Vishniac’s
photographs as “somber with poverty and with the gray light of European Winter.”

Even after escaping from Hitler’s Europe, Vishniac continued his documentation work, as he turned to photographing Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors who made their way to the United States. After the war, he returned to Germany in 1947 to photograph Jews in the DP camps, hoping to generate sympathy and support for their plight. A passionate Zionist, he had traveled to the Netherlands in 1939 to take photographs of a camp preparing young people for aliyah to Eretz Yisrael and he later traveled to Israel to photograph Israelis in their new state.

At the end of the day, Vishniac’s legacy is probably best described by Elie Wiesel in his introduction to A Vanished World:

 

One picture is worth a thousand words – or is it? In most cases, I would say: no, a poet’s word is worth at least a thousand pictures. But then I would have to admit that Roman Vishniac is a special case.

A dreamy Hassid paces heavily down the noisy street, his shoulders stooped under an invisible burden . . . And these venders, these poor peddlers who buy and sell anything to keep body and soul together one more day, one more sigh. And these beautiful girls, so thirsty for love and life: do they suspect they are already singled out by an implacable enemy determined to annihilate them?

I am walking – we are walking – behind Roman Vishniac, and we are caught by a thousand glances which enliven the alleys of the little Jewish villages. Our eyes, too, see two things at once: living beings yesterday, a void today. A supreme witness, Vishniac evokes with sorrow and with love this picturesque and fascinating Jewish world he has seen engulfed by fire and darkness.

It is his love for the dead which touches us deeply. He loves them all: the rabbis and their pupils, the peddlers and their customers, the beggars and the cantors, the sad old men and the smiling young ones. He loves them because the world they live in did not, and because death has already marked them for its own – death and oblivion as well . . .

Not to forget, not to allow oblivion to defeat memory; that is his obsession. Defying all dangers, surmounting all obstacles, he travels from province to province, from village to village, capturing slums and markets, a gesture here, a movement there, reflections of hope and despair, so that the victims will not wholly vanish into the abyss – so that they will live on, past torture and past massacre. And he has won the wager; they live still . . .

In the conclusion to his self-titled book of photographs, Vishniac movingly constructs a bridge from remembering the past to hope for the future:

Title page of Roman Vishniac signed by both the author and his wife, Edith.

After the war I visited these places, looking for survivors. I only found five men whom I knew. One of them told me that the only thing left in him was the strength to say Kaddish. I had a biological thought: like ants or bees, many are destroyed, but some will survive. They did survive. Two years after the killing stopped, a new nation was born – Israel.

Poster for the Vishniac Exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (1984).
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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.