Exploring photographer Roman Vishniac’s archives of Jewish life before the Holocaust is to contemplate just how quickly politics and propaganda can transform—or eviscerate—an entire culture.
In 1935, Vishniac began to photo-document impoverished Jewish communities in order to secure aid for them through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There are about 9,000 photo negatives in Vishniac’s archive, but only 350 of them were printed in the span of his lifetime.
Many unseparated shots from the archive. Source: Art Blart
Inside the Anhalter Bahnhof, a railway station in Berlin in the early 1930s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine
Shop woman washing the windows of Mandtler and Neumann Speditionen in Vienna in the 1930s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine
Emigration applicant meeting with an agent from the Aid Society of German Jews: 1937-38. Source: Smithsonian Magazine
Warsaw Boy in front of kindling in a basement dwelling: 1935–38. Source: Art News
Vishniac’s own daughter Mara in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that says, “The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights,” Berlin: 1933. Source: Art News
Boy standing atop a giant pile of rubble, Berlin: 1947. Source: Art News
Young Zionists building a school and foundry while learning construction techniques, The Netherlands: 1939. Source: Art News
Boys gathered in admiration of a motorcycle, Brandenburg: early 1930s. Source: Art News
Berlin street photography; notice the swastika flag on the storefront: 1935-36. Source: Art Blart
David Eckstein, seven years old, and his elementary school classmates in heder: 1935-38. Source: Art Blart
A worker in a Jewish soup kitchen: mid to late 1930s. Source: Art Blart
A Berlin street scene: 1926. Source: Art Blart
Enjoying some time outdoors: date unknown. Source: Wordpress
Bath time for siblings at home: date unknown. Source: Wordpress
Vishniac was a Russian-born Jew, who himself spent a number of weeks in a French internment camp, but was later released and moved to New York City with his family. After the war, he continued to photograph the less fortunate within Jewish communities.
Now, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and International Center for Photography have launched an online database for all of Vishniac’s photos to both highlight his exhaustive body of work and help identify his subjects in the hope that the photos can be placed into the hands of the families. Many of the photos in the archive are uncategorized and undated, and there are very few names listed – but a number of identifications have already been made.
Photos in this gallery highlight all of Vishniac’s work and remind us of the culture lost to the wills of the more powerful.
If you're interested in life in Europe during the interwar period, check out our other galleries on the Great Depression and tragic Holocaust photos.