A People Remembered: An Interview with Roman Vishniac
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, July/August 1986 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Warsaw, 1938. A young Jewish girl, dressed in an over-large, too-thin coat, stands talking to an old man. Her right hand clutches her left. She cannot get work. Her parents are ill. The old man, her grandfather, whose own coat is worn but bulky, listens in mute sympathy. Nearby, unnoticed, Roman Vishniac presses the cable release that opens the shutter on his hidden camera. Over thirty-five years later, he remembers their conversation in the caption accompanying this image in his book, A Vanished World, and recounts what he learned about them after the war: “The grandfather died when he was seized by the Nazis, the granddaughter was shipped to a camp where she was raped and later gassed. An ordinary story.”
Vishniac took this picture near the end of a six-year, five thousand-mile odyssey through Eastern Europe. Posing as a traveling salesman, he photographed the Jews who’d banded together in city ghettos and isolated mountain villages during centuries of persecution. He was convinced they would soon be exterminated. It was a courageous, and surely haunting, self-assignment. The disguise was necessary to escape the notice of the authorities, as well as his subjects, who believed photographs were graven images forbidden by God. It fooled the trustful, but not he suspicious. Vishniac was arrested countless times. Only two thousand of the sixteen thousand photographs he took between 1934 and 1939 were saved.
“It is a miracle that I am a survivor,” says Vishniac, now 88. We are seated amongst teetering piles of books and boxes of prints in the dim study of his New York City apartment.
Vishniac’s English, one of his nine languages, is still accented, although he’s lived on New York’s Upper West Side since 1940. He came by way of Berlin and before that Russia, where in 1897, he was born into a middle-class Russian/Jewish family. At seven, he took his first photographs through a microscope, the start of a lifelong fascination with photography and science that decades later would make him the world’s foremost photomicrographer. At 23, he earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. in zoology at Moscow’s Shanyavsky University—the first of twenty-two advanced degrees.
As we speak, Vishniac uses the word “miracle” often. He has been the recipient of quite a few. In his rebellious twenties, he demonstrated against the Kerensky government in Moscow. At one protest, the demonstrators were fired upon and nearly all killed. When it was quiet, Vishniac, shaken but spared, crawled out from under the bodies of his friends. Not long after, he was arrested and sentenced to death for treason. He was again miraculously reprieved, this time by the Russian Revolution, which began one-half hour before his scheduled execution. Vishniac left Moscow for Berlin in 1920. He obtained exit visas for his family, but could not get one for himself, so he crossed the border in the dark hours of early morning, ducking gunfire and searchlights.
Many stories circulate about Vishniac’s narrow escapes and self-described “iron nerves,” but today he is sparing with his anecdotes, presumably saving them for an autobiography that’s in progress. He’s working simultaneously on a second book about Europe’s pre-war shtetl, tentatively titled Life Before Death. He also travels frequently at the invitation of organizations around the world. Since last year, the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II, he’s been especially popular.
Midway through our talk, he excuses himself to speak with a Swedish interviewer who is on a tighter schedule than mine. His second wife Edith, whom he married in 1947, comes in to keep me company. When Vishniac was awarded the George Eastman medal, he had it inscribed “Roman E. Vishniac.” The “E” stands for Edith, out of gratitude for her enduring love and support, through good times and bad. “Every year it is like this,” she says. “It is not easy for hm. He has trouble sleeping. But he feels it is important.”
Vishniac is now acclaimed for his photographs of Europe’s martyred Jews, but it wasn’t always so. Although a slim volume was published in 1947, his attempts to publish the photos elsewhere were not well received, and he says Jewish organizations tried to suppress them. Not until the Eighties, with the publication of A Vanished World, was the world really ready to view such graphic evidence of what Hitler and his Nazis had destroyed.
During the intervening years, Vishniac worked as a portrait photographer and, after 1950, as a freelance photomicrographer. Now, in addition to various other pursuits, he lectures on “The Sources of Creativity” at New York’s Pratt Institute. “I teach my students wisdom,” he says.
JB: You began photographing the Jewish communities of Eastern and Central Europe in 1934, right after Hitler came to power. What made you decide to take on what you knew would be a difficult and dangerous task?
RV: I was certain that Hitler would kill as many Jews as he could. I decided to make a kind of monument of how these people lived. This is A Vanished World. The only other monuments that exist are the ashes of the burned people. I took all the photographs before the war. They are not of atrocities, but of a very difficult way of life.
JB: That early on, few people were willing to believe that Hitler posed such a threat. Why were you so certain he did?
RV: I read Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote that the Jewish question must be solved. I considered these words even more dangerous than if he’d said that he wanted to kill the Jews, because then he might not have succeeded. He succeeded by not telling the complete truth. People were arrested and sent to concentration camps, but they did not know at first that they would be murdered. Later, they were told, or they understood.
I read Mein Kampf, and then I spoke to the Nazis, trying to understand their psychology. I rented a uniform and spoke to them as if I was one of them. I asked, “Why should we kill?” They said that when they got an order to murder, they’d murder.
JB: Did you set out to do all the photography alone, or did you look for a partner or assistant?
RV: At the time there was a special Jewish photo organization. It had been formed when Jews were thrown out of other established photo clubs because they weren’t Aryans. We called it Temunah, Hebrew for picture. The best photographer of the time, Mr. Fritz Eshen, was our president. When I spoke to them of the necessity of saving the memory of the Jews, everybody told me that it was insanity. It was too dangerous. I would be thrown in prison, or worse. Nobody wanted to help me. Instead, they warned me not to do it.
Then I spoke to the great Jewish historian Senen Dubnov. He wrote a many-volume history of the Jews. It’s been translated into every language. When I brought him the pictures of my first trip to Poland, he cried out, “This is the greatest breakthrough!” He embraced me and kissed me, he was so excited.
The sad story is that he was murdered in the gas chamber in 1942. So were the people who warned me not to do dangerous things. They died in spite of being careful. So this is something that cannot be predicted. I always felt that I must do the best for the Jewish people, and God must take care of me.
JB: Did the people you photographed know their lives were in danger?
RV: They were afraid. But like most people, they were optimistic. They thought, because they were religious, that a miracle would happen—that Almighty God would not let them or their children die. It was very tragic for me to be with them and hear their questions. I didn’t tell them that I was afraid for them, and that was why I was there. I told everyone I was a traveling salesman. I hid my photo equipment under my clothes. Nobody knew I took pictures.
JB: Where did you hide your camera?
RV: It was here [he points to his neck], covered with a scarf. The lens looked through a buttonhole. I never took two pictures, only one, because it was difficult to get film.
JB: What kind of camera did you use?
RV: I had the original Rolleiflex. It was primitive; it was marked three feet, seven feet, fifteen feet, and infinity. I never focused. I had a cable release in my right hand. My film was ASA 16. I did not breathe during the exposure, sometimes for five, six seconds.
JB: Did your subjects ever think it was odd that you stopped speaking or moving for prolonged periods of time?
RV: I don’t think so. They had other problems. It was possible they thought I had some trouble breathing. They were not suspicious people. In this time, if I knocked on a door, nobody asked me, “What do you want?” Instead they asked, “Where are you coming from? What’s new there?” They didn’t close the door in my face. There was nothing to steal. They didn’t have anything. This was a life of saints. I was very touched, being so close to them, seeing and experiencing their struggles—their efforts to get better education for their children and fighting poor health. It was very touching, very moving. I never heard of a divorce. They lived a really normal, good life. They didn’t try to make money dishonestly. Everything was hard for them. The Poles didn’t dare murder very many Jews, but they made life impossible economically and socially. The Jews defended themselves by working harder.
JB: Was the Rolleiflex the only camera you used?
RV: I also had the original Leica. And I often had a movie camera with me. But only the rejects remain. People look at these rejects with great excitement, because the people are living in movies.
JB: How did you get your photographic supplies?
RV: I had to return to Berlin. In one store, the clerk gave me the film if I paid two or three times the normal price. He was not certain that I was a Jew, but he certainly understood that there was a reason I permitted him to overcharge me. That was normal, for me to pay more, because he took a risk. Later, he would have to prove that he sold only to Aryans.
JB: How did you develop your film?
RV: I carried the developing chemicals with me and would take a little chair down to the river on moonless nights. Moonlight spoils the film. But in good weather, you have all the stars, and they do not affect the images. To wash the negatives, I walked into the river, holding the film. And the times I was stopped by the police or in prison, my interrogators also developed much of my film, in order to find out if I was a spy.
JB: A spy?
RV: It was forbidden to take pictures of poverty and suffering, because it would make these places look unattractive to tourists and damage the economy. Those who took such pictures were thought to be spies and were imprisoned and put to death.
JB: How was it that prison guards knew how to develop film?
RV: They did not know how to do it, really. They used paper developer—what we call hydroquinone—because it is much quicker. But it is very harsh. It makes negatives that are difficult to print. I had to bleach them to redevelop them, and I had many problems because they didn’t wash the negatives between developing and fixing. I got spotty results. I printed the negatives myself and worked three years on the prints for this book. Some of them took a week, because I had to use ferricyanide to get more details into the prints.
JB: How many times were you arrested?
RV: Many times. I was thrown in prison eleven times. Later, when I was miraculously released, I bribed them to get the film and equipment back.
In prison, they put me in complete darkness to break my resistance. I didn’t know what time it was. I did not know if I would get another meal or if they would forget me for six months, then take out my remains and throw them to the dogs. In spite of this, when they released me, I began photographing the next day.
Even when I was sitting for a long time in the darkness, I was in a good mood. Melancholy is death, so you have to be in a good mood and expect a miracle to happen. It didn’t always. We know that six and a half million were murdered in spite of their hopes. But we are trying now to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust. That’s very important. It must never happen again.
JB: Your family was in Berlin during many of these years. Didn’t your comings and goings attract the authorities’ attention? Wasn’t it dangerous to keep slipping in and out like that?
RV: It was very dangerous. For two hundred marks a month, I bought a friend in the police. When I left Berlin, I left my family enough money so they would get by until my return. But I did not give my wife [his first wife, Luta] any information. I did not write her letters. Everything was too risky. I was always alone. I had no assistance. This would be impossible. I never had powerful or rich friends. My own friends tried to prevent me from doing what I wanted to do. But you cannot predict what will happen. It is destiny.
JB: How were you supporting yourself and financing your photographic expeditions?
RV: I went by foot, or sometimes by railroad, which was not expensive. I was with people who were very poor. Money was not a question.
JB: But meanwhile, you had to take care of your family, pay bribes, and purchase materials.
RV: What is most important comes first. If you want it and have to have it, then you get it.
JB: When did you leave Berlin for the last time?
RV: In 1939, just a few hours before the Germans invaded Poland. I was warned. I had to leave secretly. I didn’t take anything with me. I told my maid, I will return late. Go to bed. I never returned. She didn’t know that I was leaving. I’d sent my wife and children out of the country earlier. My parents left with me. Everything you see here I acquired since 1941 when I came to this country.
JB: What about the negatives?
RV: I carried some with me, sewn into my clothes, and left some with my father in France, where he was in hiding from the Nazis with the help of a landlady. He kept them under the floor or behind paintings on the wall, wrapped in paper. Some of them suffered, naturally. But this was a time of terror, and it was dangerous to keep negatives.
JB: What kind of a reception did your photographs get in the United States?
RV: Nobody was interested. The Jewish organizations wanted to destroy the negatives. They thought that their relations did not look or act different from themselves. Suddenly, they were confronted with pictures of poor people, looking very different from them. So they were afraid. They considered me the greatest enemy. I had the most difficulties with the big Jewish organizations. I won’t say which, because today the situation is changed, and the people in them are different. I’m not trying to take revenge. Times were different then.
JB: But Schocken Books published a collection of photographs in 1947.
RV: It was poorly done.
JB: Why did so many years elapse between that version and A Vanished World?
RV: I’ve had a contract since 1975, but the publisher didn’t want to publish it until a few years ago. The salespeople said it would be impossible to sell. No one was interested in the past. Everyone wanted to see pretty girls and pleasant things. Now it is a bestseller.
JB: I’m curious about the two sets of captions that go with each photograph in the book. There are short ones with each photograph and longer, more descriptive ones in a section at the front of the book. The longer ones provide details that make looking at these photographs a truly heart-wrenching experience, but flipping back and forth is awkward, and even the longer captions left me wanting to know more.
RV: I wrote the stories. The publisher did not want them at all at first. Then a friend shortened them. They do not tell the whole story. They are too short. But what can you do? The publisher is the boss.
JB: Yet captions providing information about time and place are so essential to documentary photographs. A perfect example is the photograph taken on Kristallnacht [when the Nazis burned hundreds of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, and murdered, tortured, or arrested thousands of Jews]. For one, since it’s a close-up of a child’s face, it would be impossible to know when it was taken without the caption. Another illuminating detail—in fact, a shocking detail—is that you were wearing a Nazi uniform that night.
RV: Yes. Some of the things I did to get the pictures were not easy, but I had to do it, or I would not have a picture. There was a whole store full of uniforms. When I bought it, they didn’t check on me. They presumed I needed it. A Jew would never buy one.
JB: The little girl seems to be looking directly at the camera. Is she so terror-stricken because of the uniform?
RV: I don’t think that she was afraid of me, because I was one of many. Maybe she saw a weapon. They were in a murderous state.
JB: Did you go back to Germany after the war?
RV: Yes, I returned in 1945. I still had hopes that I would find someone who had survived. But I did not find anything. That was the sad story.
JB: Have you heard from any of the people you photographed?
RV: Yes. I heard from one lady who lives in the Bronx. She’s a grandmother now. She saw herself in the book and called me. There was a big excitement. It was right after the book came out, three years ago.
She was only eleven years old when I took her picture in 1938. Her parents, brother, and sister were murdered. She was the only one to survive.
JB: You often describe your life and survival as miraculous. Even before you moved to Berlin, during your years in Russia, you had a number of close calls. How did that affect your feelings about God?
RV: I am very religious. I go to synagogue because I like the ceremony. I belong to an Orthodox congregation. But I am a scientist. A scientist must be critical. There are a thousand religions, and everyone tells you his god is better than any other god. I believe in God, which is in human beings.
JB: Do you believe in a spiritual life after death?
RV: I think that life goes on in the relatives who remain.
JB: What sort of reception did A Vanished World receive in Israel?
RV: It was phenomenal. At the exhibition, I could hardly move. People wouldn’t let me go. I had to stay all the time, from morning to evening. Even in the street, they embraced me, they kissed me, and they asked me millions of questions. It was really moving.
People understand that my book is of great importance because those depicted are no more. And they are important because of their goodness, their belief in goodness. That’s religion.
© 1986, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman