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Photographer Roman Vishniac, 92, Praised As ‘greatest in His Field’

January 24, 1990
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Photographer Roman Vishniac, whose photographs of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust immortalized a vanished world, was called “the greatest in the field” by his friend Elie Wiesel.

Vishniac died in his Manhattan apartment Monday morning of colon cancer, at age 92.

The Nobel peace laureate, who wrote the preface to Vishniac’s book “A Vanished World,” cited the storytelling ability of the photographer, saying Vishniac had an uncanny ability to read the minds of his subjects.

Vishniac “wrote the subtitles for every picture,” said Wiesel. “He had a story for every picture, an exquisite memory rich, colorful and precise. He knew exactly what the object of his picture not only did, but what he thought.”

Vishniac was born in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), Russia, in 1897. Trained as a biologist, he was known in the world of science and photography as a microphotograph, taking pictures of microscopic form of life.

But it was his work as the Jewish photographer par excellence that garnered him a lasting place in the pantheon of chroniclers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, before it was decimated by the Holocaust.


Vishniac, having had a premonition of the destruction of the Jews, roamed across 5,000 miles of Europe with a camera between the years 1932 to 1939, taking some 16,000 photographs.

He made his way through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia, with the express purpose of immortalizing Jewish life. Frequently using a hidden camera, he photographed Jews in the cities, ghettos and tiny shatters.

Vishniac recorded the visions of poor and persecuted Jews as his personal way of preserving their lives for posterity. He once said, “I was unable to save my people — only their memory.”

He took pictures of Nazi demonstrations in Germany and preserved as proof photographs of Jewish victims of the Nazis. To avoid suspicion, he often dressed as a Nazi to take the pictures.

His haunting shots of frightened Jews included pictures of individuals peering fearfully from windows, looking for signs of Nazis or collaborators.

Vishniac fled Germany before the war erupted, traveling to France, where he spent three months in the Gurs internment camp run by the Vichy French. In France, he got visas for himself and his family and arrived in New York in December 1940.

His first book on the subject was “Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record,” published by Shocken Books in 1942.

He taught humanities at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and was professor of biology education at Yeshiva University in Manhattan and at Yeshiva’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In 1971, the International Fund for Concerned Photography mounted an exhibit of Vishniac’s photographs at the Jewish Museum here.

The fund became the International Center of Photography, which published a book on Vishniac in 1974. Some 100 of Vishniac’s photographs are in the center’s permanent collection.

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