Rediscovering the Kaleidoscope of European Jewish Life
[ By Amy Touchette ]
Roman Vishniac is
best known for his
emotional photographs of Eastern
to World War II.
He was also a
widely respected scientific photographer,
whose groundbreaking work in photomi-
croscopy continued throughout his life.
Born and raised in Russia, Vishniac im-
migrated to Weimar Berlin in the 1920s,
where he became an accomplished social
documentarian and recorded the changes
occurring in prewar German society.
Between 1935 and 1938, Vishniac was commissioned by the European headquarters
of the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC) to photograph impover-
ished Jewish life in Eastern Europe for use in
fund-raising. Carefully curated, edited and
captioned to reflect the JDC’s mission, the
small percentage of Vishniac’s images that
were published defined these communities
largely in terms of hardship, isolation and
piousness. After the war, Vishniac’s photographs, and especially his book, A Vanished
World, were widely recognized as an iconic
portrayal of Eastern European Jewish life.
After Vishniac’s passing in 1990, one-
third of his archive was donated to the
International Center of Photography (ICP)
in New York. Through a careful review of
his original negatives, Vishniac scholar and
ICP adjunct curator Maya Benton discovered
that life among pre-Holocaust Jews was
much more than a one-sided portrayal. In
fact, the bulk of the archive reveals Jewish
life as being plentiful, diverse and inte-
grated with other communities. As a result,
Vishniac’s place in photography, as well as
prewar Jewish history in general, is now be-
ing recontextualized in a wider view.