Roman Vishniac Girls

The photographer Roman Vishniac traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, making photographs of ghetto life between 1935 and 1938.

Out of the sixteen thousand photographs that Vishniac took, seventy have been selected for this volume. On the pages facing the photos are Jewish children’s songs, poems, and rhymes, given in the original Yiddish with translations by Miriam Flacks. In some cases, the musical score is included.

That the photographs survived at all is a miracle. In 1940, the negatives were delivered by Roman to a friend in the French Foreign Legion, Walter Bierer, with instructions to smuggle them out of Marseilles. Vishniac himself was arrested days after the delivery of the negatives, and was only released at the last possible moment, in November, 1940 through the efforts of his wife. Bierer managed to get the negatives to Miami, but they were confiscated by U. S. Customs. After great effort, they were finally released to the photographer.

A work like this becomes high art not only because of the intimacy of the photographs — stark black-and-white images, exquisite composition — but, too, from our knowledge of their history, and the history of the children who were its subjects. Few knew in 1936 or 1938 that within a very short time most if not all of the children would have been shipped off to be murdered. Sweetness and innocence, shy eyes looking at the camera, students in their classes, boys playing in the mud of the streets, one here smiling, one there frowning — it’s all unbearably poignant because we know what was to happen to that innocence, and that beauty.

Children of a
Vanished World
Photographs of
Roman Vishniac
Mara Vishniac Kohn and
Miriam Hartman Flacks,
(University of California)