||This is the 5th printing of the very popular book of photographs by Roman Vishniac, who recorded with his camera for posterity Jewish life in the cities and ghettos of Europe prior to the Holocaust. Introduction by A, Joshua Heschel.
Roman Vishniac (1897-1990). He was a Russian-American photographer, accomplished biologist, linguist, art historian, and philosopher. As a photographer he was best known for his photographs of Central and Eastern European Jewry prior to the Holocaust, however has also made significant scientific contributions to the fields of photomicroscopy and time-lapse photography. Extremely interested in history, especially Jewish history, Vishniac had a strong Jewish identity and was a Zionist later in life. He won international acclaim for his photographs from the shetl and Jewish ghettos, his celebrity portraits, and images of microscopic biology.
Vishniac was born in Pavlosk, near St. Petersburg, and grew up in Moscow. Few Jews were permitted to live inside the city of Moscow, but since Vishniac’s father, Solomon, was a wealthy umbrella manufacturer and his mother, Manya, was the daughter of affluent diamond dealers, the family was granted permission to reside within the city. Vishniac’s fascination with biology and photography began at an early age. When his grandmother gave him a microscope for his seventh birthday, Vishniac hooked it up to a camera and photographed the muscles in a cockroach’s leg magnified 150 times. He used this microscope extensively, viewing and photographing everything he could find, from dead insects to animal scales, to pollen and protozoa.
Between 1935 and 1939, as anti-Semitism was growing in Germany, Vishniac traveled to Eastern Europe and took his acclaimed photographs of the culture of poor Jews in mountainous villages and urban ghettos. At first commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as part of a fundraising initiative, Vishniac was so affected by the project that he chose to continue it even after the commission was complete. He traveled to the ghettos of Russia, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania for years after he worked for the Committee. Aware of Hitler’s mission to exterminate the Jews, Vishniac was intent on preserving the memory of the Jewish people. He also hoped to promote awareness of the atrocities that were occurring in Nazi territories. In late 1938, Vishniac sneaked into Zbaszyn, an internment camp in Germany near the border, where Jews awaited deportment to Poland. After photographing the “filthy barracks” for two days, he escaped. Vishniac then submitted his photographs to the League of Nations as proof of the existence of such camps.
In order to take the more than 16,000 photographs of Eastern European Jewry, Vishniac used a hidden camera, both to avoid charges of spying and because many Orthodox Jews would not have their picture taken. He was arrested eleven times during this time for taking pictures, often because he was thought to be spying. Vishniac managed to preserve 2,000 of these photographs, hidden by himself and his family and smuggled into America by Walter Bierer through Cuba. The surviving photographs would later be showcased as part of one-man shows at Columbia University, the Jewish Museum, the International Center of Photography, as well as at some other institutions.
Vishniac received the Memorial Award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1956 and was the winner of the visual arts category of awards of the Jewish Book Council in 1984. His photograph, The Only Flowers of her Youth, was acknowledged as “most impressive” by the International Photographic Exhibition in 1952 and he received the Grand Prize of Art in Photography from the New York Coliseum. Vishniac also received Honorary Doctoral degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia College of Art, and the California College of Art. When he died of colon cancer on January 22, 1990, his collection of artifacts included a 14th-century Buddha, Chinese tapestries, Japanese swords, various antique microscopes, valued old maps and venerable books.