Roman Vishniac is most famous for his photographs documenting Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, but his career and the impact of his work are much broader. In 2013, the International Center of Photography in New York exhibited a collection of his photographs that spanned a period from the early 1920s until the late 1970s. The same collection is now being shown until August 28 at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. If you did not see this exhibit in New York, then make the trip to Amsterdam: it will be well worth the trip.
Vishniac was born in 1897 near St. Petersburg; his family soon moved to Moscow where he spent his childhood and completed his university education, earning an MA in zoology. After the Bolshevik Revolution, like many wealthy business owners, his family emigrated to Berlin; there he completed his research and began to study photography. With the rise of Adolph Hitler to power Vishniac began to document the impact of Nazism on German Jewish life. Starting in 1935, he traveled throughout Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and Latvia photographing local Jewish life. In 1937, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the Joint) hired him to take photographs that could be used in their publications both to document what was happening and to provide powerful images for their fundraising campaigns. His assignment to document Jewish life in Eastern Europe ended in 1938, when the Joint assisted him in making his way to the United States.
Once in the United States Vishniac continued to work for Jewish relief groups and documented American Jewish relief organizations, community life, Jewish hospitals, orphanages, foundations, schools, immigrants, refugees, etc throughout the 1940s and 50s (this represents 4 sections of the show) as well as the DP camps in Eastern Europe. He returned to his scientific work in the 1950s. Vishniac’s photographs of the Jews of Europe were displayed in 1944 at the YIVO Institute’s New York headquarters. Several volumes of his photographs have been published over the years, including Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record, The Vanished World, Children of a Vanished World, and To Give Them Light: The Legacy of Roman Vishniac. However, the exhibit now in Amsterdam includes never-before-seen photographs as well as film footage of rural Jews in the Carpathian region commissioned by the Joint.
What is so fascinating about Vishniac’s work is how it came to be. Although the end result was a photographic record of a vanished world, the Joint hired him just to take photos that would spur American Jews to open their pocketbooks to help fellow Jews in need. The rationale for his employment was to increase philanthropic contributions. At the time no one anticipated that the culture he captured on film would be totally wiped out by the end of World War II.
Thanks to the Joint’s investment in Vishniac, a lone photographer traveling to and through the small Jewish communities of Europe, we have a pictorial record of their way of life. In addition to documenting the Nazi rise to power in Germany (1933–37), his photos capture the Jews’ religious practices, their steadfast commitment to education, their business interests, and their forms of employment. The images provide testimony of the German-Jewish relief and Jewish communal organizations during the mid-to late 1930s. For example, there are photographs of food being prepared in a Jewish soup kitchen in Berlin at a time when middle-class Jews could no longer work or purchase food in stores.
At the same time that German Jews lost their ability to earn a living, the Zionist movement was encouraging them to be trained for a new life in Palestine. Vishnaic provides us with an understanding of the agricultural training programs through photographs of the Gut Winkel training farm for German-Jewish youth. They show children learning to milk cows and collecting newly hatched eggs.
To share some other highlights, as he traveled throughout Eastern Europe (1935–38), Vishniac captured images of everyday and community life that allow us to understand the richness of their lives and culture. Whether it is children playing in the Jewish quarter of Bratislava, or a father taking his son to the first day of cheder (school) in Mukacevol, or a group leaving the synagogue on the Sabbath in Kazimierz, Krakow, or Jewish refugees in horse stables that were converted to living quarters in a Polish detention camp in Zbaszyn – all of these images provide us with a sense of what this lost world was like for those who most likely did not survive through to 1945.
If you are unable to travel to Amsterdam to see this exhibit, you can see all of the photos and objects at this link: Explore the Exhibition. I hope you find the collection as fascinating and eye-opening as I did.
Following Amsterdam, the exhibit will travel to Paris, Warsaw, Houston and San Francisco.
The exhibition was generously supported by foundations including the Berg Foundation, Righteous Persons’ Foundation, Claims Conference, and the NEA, who also with the support of generous individuals endowed the archive and funded the digitization of every object in it – more than 40k objects total.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.