Number 57
Summer 2008 / 5768

Magnifying History: The photography of Roman Vishniac

An Interview with Mara Vishniac Kohn


The following interview took place in Santa Barbara, California, in May 2008, when curator and Vishniac Archive director Maya Benton spoke with Mara Vishniac Kohn at her home. Kohn, the daughter of photographer Roman Vishniac (1897–1990), recalled her childhood in Berlin before the war and discussed her father’s now-famous images of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe. New research has uncovered that Vishniac’s photographs were commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) between 1935 and 1938. They portrayed destitute and pious Eastern European Jews, primarily for the purpose of stimulating philanthropy on their behalf. Vishniac traveled widely on assignment and photographed throughout Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia, from the most remote shtetlekh of Galicia to the major cosmopolitan and industrial centers of Central and Eastern Europe. Originally trained as a biologist, Vishniac went on to a successful career in America in the field of photomicroscopy and time-lapse photography. But it is for his photographs of Jewish life, many of them collected by Kohn in Children of a Vanished World, that Vishniac is most widely remembered.  

Maya Benton: I would like to start by asking you about two photographs your father took of you in 1933, when you were seven years old. In one you are standing in front of a poster exalting the alliance between Hitler and Hindenburg. In the other you are pictured in front of an advertisement for a device measuring the difference in size between Aryan and non-Aryan skulls. What memories do the photos trigger?

Mara Vishniac Kohn: It was cold – late fall or late winter – so I had a winter coat on, and a hat which I wore in a way that I didn’t want to because my mother insisted. I remember being angry at this whole situation. My father wanted to photograph these particular posters having to do with the first election of Hitler, when Hindenburg was still in the picture. He put me in front of them so that if he was questioned by anyone, he could say: “I’m taking a picture of my daughter.”
In the next picture I’m standing in front of a store that, again, my father wanted to photograph because it showed this gimmick to establish if you were racially pure or not. Again, I’m standing there, this time with my eyes closed at the moment that he opened the shutter.

So you were aware of being a prop in his photographs?

Oh, absolutely.

Did such political propaganda form a backdrop that you just walked past every day, or were you aware of them as constant and oppressive?

I was quite aware of the slogans. To this day I can’t stand slogans, because they are usually the same: liberty and justice and that sort of thing, which is what the Germans felt they owned as well. There was one – it was not exactly a slogan but used in graffiti: “Jude Verecke!” which means “Jews, Die!” That was scrawled around, because German children and young people were taught that we were extremely dangerous to them.

What are your other memories of being a Jewish adolescent in Berlin in the 1930s?

There were a lot of places that we Jews were not allowed to go. There came a time when we could no longer go to movies, play tennis, ice skate, go swimming, or any of those things. As a child, I loved to go to stores with other children and look around and maybe get a hot bun, but then the stores had signs saying “We are a German store.” That meant that Jews should not go into that store. There were some that said much more plainly, “No Jews welcome here!” or “‘No Jews or dogs!” I remember endless conversations with my friends at the time, standing in front of those stores, trying to decide whether it was more noble to go in despite not being allowed to go in – to sort of feel and show our courage. Or was it perhaps nobler to just stick your nose in the air and say “I’m not going where I’m not wanted” and go away? Often we did want to go in, and then we would start with considerations about whether we would be thrown out physically or yelled at, or – and this was usually the deciding question – would our parents get in trouble?

When did you get involved in Zionist youth organizations?

I might have been eight or so, because that’s when my brother joined Hashomer Hazair. I had a group of close friends who met at least weekly and sometimes more, as a part of something called Werkleute. It was a different organization, along roughly the same political lines. We talked about books, we sang Hebrew songs, and we learned that we were going to be halutzim pioneers who would found a new country, which was then called Palestine. We knew that we would drain the swamps and build farms, and it all sounded and felt very heroic. I think that the Zionist preoccupation was a very important element in psychological survival, because what we learned was that we were the good guys, which is pretty heady stuff. People who were persecuting us were obviously the bad guys. My friends and I tried to at least pretend that we were strong and moral and not afraid.

You were a young cosmopolitan Berliner. Did the images of traditional observant Eastern European Jews that your father took between 1935 and 1938, on behalf of the JDC, seem foreign, or “other,” to you?

I connected them with my father, with my father being there, because I spent considerable time in my father’s darkroom with him and saw these pictures emerge. As you say, they seemed strange, but I knew about Jews and what traditional Jews looked like. I didn’t connect it so much with any interest in Jewishness because neither the Zionists, with whom I was concerned, nor my family was particularly religious in a ritualistic way. So I saw them, I knew that’s where my father had been, and my father, from that time on and forever after, of course, always presented them as scholarly and good and saintly people. I sort of accepted that when I was young.

When he returned to Berlin, from his trips to the East, you were often in the room as he was developing the photographs, and saw the images emerge out of the chemicals. Did you help him to develop the film? 

Oh, of course! My job was to rock the trays of developer and hypo, agitating the prints very carefully with tongs. It was in the semi-dark with only a red safelight. I felt quite honored by this.

It must have also seemed magical to see images of people who looked so different emerging out of this chemical bath.

Yes, because they emerge sequentially with the darkest, most exposed places that come up first, so it’s like a little puzzle. You don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, and there’s some suspense in there.

What about your family life in Berlin...was your family religious?

My father would go often to the synagogue on Friday nights. My mother not so much. On the whole they were quite...what was called “emancipated.” We were not ever kosher, although pork was not eaten. So accommodations were made. Eventually, of course, they were prohibited access to [Gentile] cultural events. There was the Kulturbund in Berlin, which gave [Jewish] artists and scientists and other lecturers a place to function, and my parents were a part of that and often went to lectures and concerts and that sort of thing. Before Nazi times they attended German musical events and opera.
I was religious – in a sort of romantic way – quite pious too, with a morning shema and an evening shema and that sort of thing. My faith – what there was of it – ended abruptly and deliberately on Kristallnacht, when I was very upset about the cruelty that was going on all around me, and I decided there couldn’t be a God.

What do you remember about Kristallnacht? You were twelve years old.       

I happened to be home from school with a cold, and I was in bed. Someone rang the bell [to our] apartment. Nobody else was home so I opened it and there stood a policeman from our local police station. He was a friendly guy, and he said, “Is your father home?” I said, “No,” and he replied, “Good. Keep it that way.” I had no idea what that was about. I told my mother when she came home and she knew exactly what it meant. She saw to it, and I don’t know in what way, that my father did not come home and neither did my brother.
The following day, November 10, we happened to have two visitors from the Joint Distribution Committee in New York, who had come to see my father. They were in our apartment when we heard a lot of noise and commotion and shouting in the streets. My mother and I and these two visitors went out on the balcony overlooking Pariserstrasse to see what was going on, which was very shocking. Much to my surprise, the two American visitors ducked down behind the railing of the balcony while my mother and I stood there. I was absolutely astonished because as far as I knew Americans were totally invulnerable anywhere in the world. To have these two [American] guys duck down, while we kids in our Zionist groups wouldn’t even admit to being afraid, that was very surprising.
The scene in the street was, of course, the willful destruction, the smashing in of Jewish-owned stores. Groups of young Germans coming down the street and having, to all appearances, a pretty good time.

To return to the subject of your father’s photographs: at what point in your life did you realize that his images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe were the treasure they are considered to be today?

For many years I was always surprised when people said they knew the name or recognized the photographs. Of course, I have learned from handling the [copyright] permissions how many people are really interested and how these photographs are widely considered the last documentary evidence of those traditional communities.

You arrived in America on December 31, 1940, on the S.S. Siboney. Did your father try to make a living with photography after he arrived in the States?

Oh, yes. Immediately. He went to Jewish hospitals and schools and institutions, taking pictures that I personally don’t believe compare to the art of the European pictures [these photographs are now in the ICP archive]. He tried very vigorously to make contacts, both in the world of Jewish institutions and in the world of microphotography, which eventually became his income.

He worked for many years on a series of portraits of famous Jews, most notably Einstein, Chagall, and Gershom Scholem, which were taken in the 1940s. Was this part of a broader effort to establish his photographic career in his early years in the States?

Yes. He really tried to earn a living by portraiture. The portrait studio was in fact our apartment on 72nd Street [in Manhattan].

Your father wrote to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the early 1940s, almost immediately after arriving in America and before he could even speak English. He included photographs he had taken of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, along with passionate requests that the president assist the Jewish communities still in peril abroad. He also invited Eleanor to his 1944 YIVO exhibit. Was he always so chutzpadik?

Yes, he was very emotional and driven to hope that, at that point – the beginning of 1941 – it might still be possible to save some lives with help from Washington. The admiration for Roosevelt was very great, and America was a blessed country as far as we were concerned. We did not know until much later of the decision not to interfere or intervene on behalf of the Jews of Europe.

After the war, as the scope of the annihilation of Eastern European Jewry was becoming evident, did the historical significance of your father’s photographs shift?

I think it did. But again, it wasn’t a sudden event. I came to it quite late. Maybe because these pictures were taken by my father, I didn’t realize they had enormous general importance. That’s how young people think…the personal relationship really takes precedence over any greater meaning.

Can you tell me about the genesis of your book, Children of a Vanished World?

I will start with myself in the sense that I have spent my professional life with children [as an educational therapist]. I am very interested and devoted to children. When Jewish children of Eastern Europe are mentioned among Jews, it’s inevitable that someone will say that one and a half million of our children were killed. This is a horrible, sorrowful thought. There came a time when I was interested in looking at who these children were. What their lives were like. I felt these children should be known for having lived and not only for having died. I also knew that among my father’s work there are many very fine unpublished children’s pictures.
I began to have the thought that I would like to do something showing these children in their lives. Sometime in that gestation period I thought about either games or plays or verses that would illustrate something about their living time on earth. That really was the genesis of this book.
Of course, they lived their lives in Yiddish, and since I don’t know it well myself, I had to look for someone who was very familiar with Yiddish, who could find material and translate it when necessary. That’s when I thought of a friend of mine, Miriam Hartman Flacks, who grew up with Yiddish and had a real feeling for it. So I asked her to participate. She in fact found some of the materials, some of the songs and verses, and added her own translations. That’s the content of this book: my father’s photographs and Miriam Flacks’s Yiddish presentation of these songs. They are actually songs sung to children, although one or two of them might be sung by children as well. That’s how the book came about.

Why do you think Vishniac’s images of children resonate so strongly with viewers? Why do these photographs, in particular, have such a dedicated audience?
I don’t know how that works. Roman’s photographs actually reach the inner experience of the person looking at them. It is, I think, a hallmark of his Jewish photography, in particular, that he is able to make an emotional connection to the viewer. How precisely that happens, I can’t answer at all, but I know that it does and I know that it differs from the work of other people who have taken similar images, who do not sometimes convey this relationship – this reaching and touching almost. These photographs are able to do that. That’s part of the value and the wonder of this work.

Have you had any contact with people who have identified themselves as subjects in Vishniac’s photographs?

The most recent example was in Toronto when two ladies came up to me and pointed out one of the images in the book Children of a Vanished World. They asked me, “Do you see this boy? That’s our father.” This boy survived and landed in Canada. This was at a performance of a play, Children of a Vanished World, which is based on the book. ‘

Your father considered himself an artist, a scientist, a photographer, a scholar, a professor, and a historian – did he feel most strongly about one identity?

I think both his status as photographer and his status as scientist were perhaps of equal importance to him. At the very end of his life, when he was not speaking very much anymore, when he spoke, it was mostly about his microphotographic work. This surprised me, because his reputation rested largely on the Jewish work.
In the months when he was ill and declining, he spoke about microscopes, with which he had always been fascinated. My husband [Nobel Laureate and theoretical physicist Walter Kohn] once visited him with a copy of a photograph of atoms as seen by the new tunneling microscopes where you could actually see individual atoms. Roman, who had been quite silent, and who didn’t move very much anymore, lifted his head and said, “What magnification?” My husband told him, and he sort of let his head fall back and said, “Da bin ich geschlagen!” “They beat me!” So his humor, and a kind of charming humor, really lasted until practically the last minute.

What are your hopes for your father’s legacy?

Of course, I hope that both he and his work will be remembered and credited. In the years since his death, since I became involved in this, I have been astonished at how much this work is valued by very many different people with interests in using the work in a variety of ways. This includes Christian organizations, people in the field of documentary photography or documentary filmmaking. I have come to understand and appreciate more than I did earlier the value of these photographs. As we said, there are people who look more or less like these people in today’s Jewish communities, but there can be no substitute for the validation for the culture that existed in Eastern Europe and was exterminated. I’m hoping that there will always be selections of his work in museums or other institutions clearly credited to him. That’s important to me.

Roman Vishniac’s photography is the subject of a forthcoming large-scale traveling retrospective and scholarly catalog, curated by Maya Benton. It will open at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2011 before traveling to numerous venues in the U.S. and abroad. Following Mara Vishniac Kohn’s recent donation, to ICP, of Vishniac’s entire collection of negatives, contact sheets, personal correspondence, and thousands of prints in the summer of 2007, a Roman Vishniac archive is currently being established, digitized, and preserved, along with a website and reciprocity agreement with the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and will be fully available to researchers by 2011.

“Roman Vishniac: Children of a Vanished World” is on display at the National Yiddish Book Center through August 2008. This traveling exhibition was curated in 2003 by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. For more information, see the Calendar of Events on page 6.