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"Vishniac Photographs Breathe Life into Memories of
Children from a Vanished World "

Warsaw, 1938. Twenty six families lived in this basement. Vishniac spent the night there, three men to a bed. - http://www.wabash.edu/depart/CandT/Vish-Slides/Slide_7.htm

During the years 1935 through 1938, celebrated photographer Roman Vishniac turned his camera lens on Jewish life in Eastern Europe, in the hope of focusing worldwide attention on its declining condition at the brink of destruction. Under dangerous circumstances, he concealed a camera in his clothing and recorded a way of life he feared would, otherwise, be erased from memory.


Commissioned by the American Joint Distribution Committee to take part in a humanitarian effort to assist Jewish communities in pre-war Eastern Europe, Vishniac (1897 – 1990) left Berlin to enter the world he had heard about while growing up in Moscow. Once there, he was deeply moved by the hardworking men, women and children who managed to cling to their traditions, despite ongoing oppression.

Keeping his camera hidden, with only its lens peering out through a buttonhole in his coat, he shot more than 16,000 photographs. Vishniac dedicated three years to creating pictorial evidence of those subjects whose spirit he captured with particular poignancy and devotion: children. Vishniac preserved his photographs by placing them in the safekeeping of family and friends, just prior to his arrest and internment in France. His own life was spared when his wife, sent to safety in Sweden and later Portugal, succeeded in obtaining him a visa, allowing Vishniac to reunite with his family and make safe passage to America. Knowing there was no time to lose if any of the children were to be saved, Vishniac made every effort to display his photos upon arriving in New York. Despite being known widely for his work, however, Vishniac’s attempts to alert President Roosevelt to their significance were met with, albeit polite, disinterest.

Of the 2,000 photos that survived the war, Vishniac attached to them few notes. Exact dates and locations are left uncertain, enabling the viewer to, instead, ponder the faces and the stories that they tell. Accompanying the display of these haunting images are printed music and audio recordings of Yiddish children’s songs, poems and rhymes that were once part of the rhythm and vitality of everyday Jewish life.

Why did I do it Vishniac asked in a commentary on his work. I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear.

I hope that you will look at each picture with its story, and perhaps you, too, will see the world that I saw.

The exhibition, Roman Vishniac: Children of a Vanished World, was created and circulated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York.


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