Photographers: Roman Vishniac (Russia/United States, 1897-1990)

Figure 1.--This is one Roman Vishniac's remarkable photographs capturing the life ahd culture of the Jewish communities of Eastern and Central Europe on the eve of World War II and the NAZI Holocaust. We do not know just where in Eastern Europe this photograph was taken.  

Vishniac came from a wealthy Russian Jewish family. He was born in his grandparents' dacha near Saint Petersburg, in the town of Pavlovsk (1897). He grew up in Moscow. His family was granted the rare privlige for Jews of living in Moscow by Tsarist officials. Roman was a remarkable student. He was at first home schooled anf then at age 10 years enrolled in a private school where he won awards for scholarship. He had a wide range of interests which include photography and various academic disciplines including biology. He was given a camera at a young age and when also given a microscope, he began taking photographs through it. The family fled to Berlin after the Revolution because of rising anti-Semitism by anti-Bolshevik elements (1918). He worked to help support the family and studied as well. The family remained in Germany after the NAZI take over (1933). He photigraphed some early NAZI scenes and German Jews. We are not sure how he steered clear of the SA and NAZI authorities. Nor are we sure of his citizenship status, but the NAZIs revoked the citizenship of Jews as pat of the NHuremberg race laws (1935). His early photoigraphy and speaking engagements attracted enough attention that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) commissioned him to photograph the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe to use for a fund-raising drive to support these economically deprived communities under pressure of rising anti-Semitism. It is the best visual record of Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe just before they were destroyed in the NAZI Holocaust. He focused on poor Jews in the mountainous villages/shtetls and urban ghettos (in the pre-NAZI sence). Somehow all this was done while Vishniac was still living in Berlin. He developed and printed all his photographs in the home dark room at his Berlin apartment. He took several trips to Eastern Europe (1935-38), still working for the JDC. We have archived several of his remrkable images on HBC, including one from Carpatho-Russia (eastern Czechoslovakia). Vishniac was extrodinarily brave, approaching wreckless in the pursuit of images. He managed to sneak into the Zbaszyn interment camp in Germany near the Polish border (1938). German authorities were deporting Polish Jews who had been living in Germany. The Polish authorities were not cooperating and the deportees were being held in Zbaszyn under dreadful conditions. He photographed the 'filthy barracks' there for 2 days and than escaped. Vishniac forwarded his photographs to the League of Nations as proof of what the Germans were doing and how Jews were beuinhg treated. He is best know for his work with the JDC and the moving photographs he prioduced. He took over 16,000 phottographs, but only 2,000 survive. They had to be secretly brought out of NAZI Germany. After Kristallnacht, his wife and children moved to Sweden (1939). They stayed his his wife's parents and Vishniac joined them. His parents also managed to get out of Germany. He met his parents in Nice just befire the War. (Summer 1939). After the War and the German occupation of France he went to France again on a Latvian passport. He was arrested by the French police, but the JDC and his wife got him out of an internment camp and he mnaged to get to Lisbon and fly to America. An archive of his work is housed at the International Center of Photography.


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Created: 10:54 AM 7/31/2013
Last updated: 10:54 AM 7/31/2013