Roman Vishniac: History Through a Camera

an interview by Ellen Wulfman
The Star, 1984

It is late fall. Mrs. Vishniac has retrieved some flowers from the outdoors before the cold weather mercilessly dismissed them. Roman Vishniac first met his wife Edith in 1931 in Berlin. "She is unbelievable. I took one look and fell in love with her. She looked like a saint. She is very unusual. We never had a disagreement in 54 years." With the mention of Edith's name he let loose a deep joyful giggle. Vishniac laughed only once during our meeting.

Every other year Vishniac travels to Germany to visit the gravesite of his grandfather Wolf Vishniac. Taking his key he opens the old rusted gates of the cemetery. Once inside he cleans off the gravesite and cuts back the overgrown foliage; if the tombstone has fallen he repositions it. "Once I am gone no one will come to do this."

Roman Vishniac was born on Aug. 19, 1897 in a small town outside Leningrad. Vishniac's father was a Zionist who organized the first Zionist congress for his friend Theodore Hertzl. Vishniac's mother and father were founders of the early ORT society. As a young medical student Vishniac worked to organize the Jewish community to aid the many thousands of Jews who suffered as a result of the pogroms. There is only one time when Vishniac could remember the Jews of Russia being treated humanely, and that was from March to October of 1917 under the rule of Kerensky. "In Russia the anti-Semitism is the strongest; it is in their blood." Shortly after the Russian Revolution the Vishniac family immigrated to Berlin. 

Once in Berlin Vishniac began to record the life of the Jewish communities with his camera. 

The Nazis believed Vishniac was a Jewish spy. "For photography I was very often put in prison. If I succeeded by bribery to buy myself free then I could photograph again." Vishniac had covered over 5.000 miles by the time he left Europe in 1941. 

Vishniac lived in Germany for 20 years, during which time he experienced the transformation of an entire nation. "I lived through the whole change of a normal nation, absolutely normal, more social democrats than in the other countries, and they suddenly became aliens." Sixty years ago when the earliest editions of Mein Kampf were circulated Vishniac understood the seriousness of Hitler's message. "Hitler was very happy to murder the Jews. This book moved me to start to fight against destruction. I was unable to save the people, so at least I was able to save the culture."

Today Vishniac and his wife share an apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. Rooms which first appear crowded with books and pictures slowly evolve to reveal the deliberate and loving efforts of two lives, lives filled with what can be seen as an overabundance of material for the modern eye; everything has a story. On the window sill sits a worn leather satchel. The bag is over 60 years old. The bag is opened to reveal a detailed framework of wood and tiny nails carefully placed to hold the vulnerable structure together. The bag is very old but Vishniac is used to it. This is the bag which accompanied him during his 5.000 mile journey to photograph the Jews of Eastern Europe. 

Roman Vishniac is 86 years old. As a professor of humanities at Pratt University he claims that his fellow faculty members do not like him because he takes away their students. Of the 3,684 lectures he has given not one has ever been repeated.

"My agent is always with me and it would be boring for her if I would repeat the lectures." A slight twinkle is detectable in "Professor" Vishniac's eyes.

Vishniac teaches his students his philosophy of the independent mind. "I teach them that they should not have my opinion, or their father's opinion, they should develop their own opinion."

Vishniac pauses to reflect on the past, to remember so that we might learn from experience. There is danger in Soviet Russia and there has been for as long as Vishniac can remember. We demonstrate and yet over two million remain in the gulags. We can see the great danger coming again. Soviets were terrorists from the beginning. Lenin was a great terrorist, Stalin killed, according to Solzyinitsen, 60 million people."

Though he is an optimist by nature Vishniac has certain reservations concerning the values, at times, of optimism. "Sometimes this is not good, because the people hoped that Hitler would not kill them and they did not run away while it was possible."

Vishniac hopes that the world will come to understand the universal depth and significance of the Holocaust. "The Germans must think more about the Holocaust, and in every school there must be taught the story of the Holocaust, because it is very important to stress that this is German, GOETHE IS GERMAN, THE HOLOCAUST IS GERMAN."

Vishniac's unyielding search, his great insistence to look and to understand, has given us a rare and invaluable vision.
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