Roman Vishniac at the ICP

by Jonathan Blaustein

Growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Holocaust. In the 70′s and 80′s, we were not yet so removed from the atrocities. People knew people who’d been in concentration camps, and, somehow, survived.

Back then, we Jews seemed to feel as if our particular horror defined us as a race. I can just imagine the perverse fun people must have had in certain Post-Modern-Theory classes, on certain college campuses in the 80′s. (African Slavery was the worst, obviously. It’s pointless to even discuss it, Jeffrey. Don’t be ridiculous, Stephanie, the genocide of Native Americans was worse than that. You know, smallpox in the blankets, killing all those bison to starve the people. Really, guys, come on. You’re both totally off base. Everyone knows the Holocaust trumps them all. Poison gas showers, OK? Screw me? Screw you.)

It’s safe to say that people have done lots of nasty, unspeakable things to other people down through the eons. There’s not much new under the sun, as far as human cruelty goes. For millennia, though, there was no photographic evidence. Nowadays, we can see pixelated packets of bloody misery any time we want. (Whether it’s Quadaffi getting violated by a justifiably furious horde, or that poor British soldier after he got chopped to pieces on a London sidewalk.)

It’s far too easy to become inured to it all. I even skipped the Oklahoma City tornado news coverage last week, as I was so tired of empathizing with the tragedy of the moment. Not to suggest those people didn’t suffer enough. Just the opposite. The constant barrage of other people’s misery can be a bit much to bear, sometimes.

So I was truly surprised at the power of my reaction to “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” a recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. I saw the show in April, shortly before it closed. To be honest, it was kind-of an accident. A friend was having a book signing there on a Friday night, so admission was pay as you wish. (I coughed up a buck.) Had that not been on my agenda, I would have missed the show entirely.

In the museum’s basement, there was a large selection of photographs of the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe on the cusp of the Nazi rise to power. The black and white pictures were absolutely superb. Cobblers and merchants, fathers and sons, farmers and city folk. Big brown eyes expressed emotions, people went about their business.

Essentially, it was a documentary project that focused on a culture on the verge of annihilation. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m not sure if anything else like it even exists.

Yes, I’m Jewish, as I’ve said many times, but I identify as an American more than anything. (I’m fourth generation, and none of my close relatives remained in Europe through WWII.) My years of miserable Hebrew School irrelevance squashed much of my Jewish identity away. (Despite the fact that I mention it here often.) My point is that I’m not sure my reaction was specific to members of my tribe.

I almost cried so many times. (Five or six.) I felt like screaming out at the people in the rectangles: Run for your lives. Get the f-ck out of there. Hitler aims to drink your blood. (Futile, I know.) Even if they hadn’t been killed, they’d be dead by now anyway. One of the ironic and beautiful subtleties of our medium.

There was also a film projection, showing a group of sturdy Jewish farmers in the Carpathian Mountains. But for the attire, they looked like they could have been my neighbors in 21st Century Northern New Mexico. It would have been fascinating if it weren’t so terribly sad.

I’d never heard of Roman Vishniac before I visited his show. Maybe you’re familiar with his work, maybe you’re not. Either way, I highly encourage you to look it up here. No, it won’t be the same as walking through a physical space. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to write this before the exhibition closed last month.) But there is an old saying about those who are unfamiliar with history being condemned to something or other. You know what I mean?

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 9 Comments On This Article.

  1. Vishniac was a wonderful photographer who indeed caught a moment in time in a most sensitive way. To understand the emensity of the tragedy the book to read is “The Pity of it All” by Amos Alon. He documents how the Jews of Germany were assimilated so completely into the community that the Holocaust could not have been imagined.

  2. I, too, stumbled upon his exhibit at the University of Florida Harn Museum some years ago, perhaps a decade or so, while on a field trip with my son. Drawn to the content as well as the print quality, I returned to the museum later to really get a good look. Although I wasn’t familiar with Vishniac’s work, I located a book in my own library, “Concerned Photographers 2,” that includes a chapter on Vishniac. The backstory on how he secretly made these photographs and snuck the negatives out of the country makes the work even more compelling. Thanks for sharing.

  3. john mcd.

    Thanks for this one Jonathan.Glad you discovered Vishniac and his powerful work. You don’t need to be Jewish to be moved to tears by these images(or by a visit to Dachau or Auschwitz).

  4. As someone whose grandparents were both murdered at Auschwitz I am especially grateful that these poignant and haunting photographs were both rescued and are being seen.

  5. So I am waiting for your own personal documentary of what moves you Jonathan. You are one of the rare individuals who can add words to an image that has spoken a thousand already. It is a craft taken up by a relative few talented individuals such as Tim Hetherington. I forget that you teach also which means your talent runs deep. But seriously I would love to see a doc by you, you have the audience….

    • Thanks so much, Ed. It is an idea I regularly contemplate. I think documentaries are driven by subject matter, though, and I still haven’t found mine yet. And there are so many new skills to learn. (Cinematography, audio, etc.)
      Hope you’re doing well.

      jb