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Photos of a Vanished World
Photographer Roman Vishniac sensed he was witnessing the last years, in some cases the last months, of Jewish life in the communities he visited in the late 1930s. Using a concealed camera, he took thousands of photographs in the hope of focusing worldwide attention on the growing menace from Nazi Germany.
"I couldn't save my people, I only saved their memory," he wrote after the war.
A biologist by training, Vishniac was born in Russia in 1897. He moved to Berlin with his family in 1920, seeking refugee from anti-Semitic persecutions that followed on the heels of the Communist October revolution. After Hitler came to power in 1933, the American Jewish Joint Distribution, a charity, commissioned Vishniac as a photographer. Between 1935 and 1939, he crisscrossed Central and Eastern Europe — Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. He was arrested 11 times.
The record of these Yiddish-speaking communities is one of crushing poverty but great spiritual resources. There are farmers and street-porters on their way to the market place, Chassidim in the traditional costume, and rabbis and Talmud students emerging from their religious schools. Shopkeepers and peddlers struggle to survive against all odds.
One image is simply a basket of bagels on a cold winter morning. Vishniac recounts that only moments later the police kicked it over, leaving them on the cobblestones. The Jewish couple selling the bagels didn't have permission to be in a gentile street. A dealer in baby carriage parts waits in vain for a single customer. A woman despairs of selling her apples and starts giving them away to children (What will her own children eat, asks Vishniac).
As a Jew, Vishniac was not allowed to purchase more than two rolls of film at a time. He often developed his negatives on moonless nights, carefully rinsing meters of film in a fast-flowing stream.
"Was it madness to constantly overstep the limits and risk my life on a daily basis?" he later wrote. "Whatever the question, my answer remains the same: I had to do it. I felt the world was going to be darkened by the shade of Nazism and I wanted to be a witness to this suffering … I knew that it was my duty to do something so that this vanished world was not completely erased. …"
Vishniac had to use a hidden camera, not only to avoid the charge of spying but because Orthodox Jews did not like having their picture taken due to the commandment against the making of graven images. He concealed the camera in his scarf, pulling the shutter as he raised it to his face, or in his sleeve. He usually disguised himself as a cloth merchant. Claiming to have poor eyesight, he would carry a small petrol lamp and light it indoors in order to take interior pictures. Out of 16,000 photographs, only 2,000 survived. He sewed some of the negatives into his clothing when he left for America. Others were kept by his father who hid in France during the war.
After Vishniac escaped to New York with his wife and children in 1940, he tried in vain to draw attention to the looming fate of the people he had photographed, writing to Eleanor Roosevelt among others. He was not able to publish the pictures until 1947 — too late to help them. The title of the collection was: "The Vanished World: Jewish Cities, Jewish People."
Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History)