Ambarin Afsar tells you about the extraordinary experiences of Roman Vishniac, a versatile photographer, microbiologist, art collector and teacher.
This article was originally published in April 2013.
“Vishniac displayed a rare depth of understanding and a native son’s warmth and love for his people. – Edward Steichen
The location is a concentration camp where Jews await deportation to Poland. The year is 1938. It is the dead of night. A man jumps out from the second floor of a building. He creeps away, avoiding broken glass and barbed wire. He has with him photographs that prove the existence of these camps, photos that he will send to the League of Nations. This man is Roman Vishniac.
The Story So Far
But, the story doesn’t begin here. It begins in 1897, when a boy is born to a wealthy Jewish family in a country house in Russia. This boy has a reasonably privileged childhood, he is gifted a camera and a microscope at the age of seven. He uses these to make microphotographs of tiny insects. The family lives in Moscow at a time when most Jews have been expelled.The boy grows up to a university education and doctorates in Zoology and Oriental Art.
A Commission Comes His Way
Troubled by blatant discrimination, the family moves to Berlin. In 1935, when anti-Semitism is gaining an ugly hold over Germany, Vishniac is commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document life in the shtetlekh (little Jewish towns) in Eastern Europe, to help raise funds. And so, he sets out.
Being Jolted into Reality
These shtetlekhs shocked the young man with an affluent background. Vishniac discovered that there were places where Jews weren’t allowed to own cameras. In other places, they were only allowed to buy two rolls of film at a time. People didn’t always welcome him. He was an outsider, and to many, his photography seemed to violate the Torah’s prohibition against engraved images.
“His photos guided the visual interpretation of Schindler’s List.” – Yoshefa Loshitzky, Editor, Spielberg’s Holocaust
A Wish to Preserve Memories and Faces
After completing his commission, Vishniac decided to continue the project on his own. Decades later, he said, “I felt it was my duty to preserve a world that might cease to exist. I wanted to save the faces. I especially wanted to take pictures of children, since Hitler eventually killed more children than old people. He wanted to destroy the young.”
The Escapades of a Young Gun
This quest took him to the shtetlekh of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and so on. Persecution grew each day. Vishniac learned to disguise himself as a travelling fabric salesman and would bribe anyone who got in his way. He would hide a Rolleiflex beneath his coat for outdoor photos, and would even conceal a Leica in a scarf wrapped around his neck. Gradually, he learned to use a kerosene lamp in low light situations, keeping his back to a wall for support, and holding his breath.Despite his precautions, he was detained 11 times on the suspicion of espionage.
“I met him in 1966, and discovered how undiscovered he was.” – Cornell Capa
A Haven in New York
After many near escapes, his family fled to New York in 1940. Out of the 16,000 images made in Eastern Europe, only 2000 photos reached America. In 1983, two hundred of these photos were published in an iconic book titled A Vanished World. Life returned to normal and Vishniac , to microphotography. He passed away in 1990. This year, the International Center for Photography has made available to the public the unseen images of a man who put his life on the line. Vishniac’s story tells us that heroes are born not only out of adversity, but out of their desire to preserve life and its essence.