Friday, July 23, 2010

Roman Vishniac

Source: SFMOMA link

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) published "A Vanished World," famous photos of devout, impoverished, persecuted Jews in early twentieth century Poland and Eastern Europe.

On April 4, 2010, the New York Times published "A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac." The article begins:

"'A Vanished World,' evoked what many have come to imagine as life in the shtetl: elegiac images of small cities and provincial villages, their hunchback rabbis walking cobblestone streets, Talmud prodigies studying by candlelight, men whispering in courtyards – a vision lighted with authenticity and charged with nostalgia … His pictures were used in so many influential books about Jewish life before the Holocaust – as illustrations for books by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Irving Howe and later serving as what Janusz Kaminski called the 'guiding force' for his Oscar-winning cinematography of 'Schindler's List' – that Vishniac has virtually become, in the words of Leon Wieseltier 'the official mortuary photographer of Eastern European Jewry.'"

The article goes on to state that Vishniac manipulated his documentary photography to suit ideological and financial ends. Example: a famous photograph identified as being of Jews hiding from Roman Dmowski's followers in Poland was not in fact a photograph of Jews hiding from Roman Dmowski's followers in Poland.

The Holocaust played a role in Vishniac's work's reception, the article states.

"the Holocaust twisted ambivalent affection into paralytic grief. After the war, it became difficult to view prewar images as anything but a prelude to destruction – a backshadowing that distilled the complicated, multifaceted reality of prewar Jewish life into a two-dimensional shrine."

This is one of the key arguments of my own book, "Bieganski."

Vishniac's unpublished photographs include those of "women in modern dress and men without hats, religious people comfortably consorting with secular people, shopkeepers with plenty of wares"

Arno Lowi, who studied Polish Jews and whose father lived in Krakow before the war and survived the Plaszow Concentration Camp, shared with me an interesting reflection on the Vishniac article:


I knew that all that stuff was a nostalgic confabulation, that wasn't entirely unconscious, but willed. The fact that the JDC [The The Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization] specifically commissioned Vishniac to submit pix of the poor Jews in order to maximize fundraising efforts is a juicy bit of info.

Over his bed, my father hung a painted portrait of his father and mother, from 1930s Poland. His father had no hat or head covering, was clean shaven, wore a tie and jacket, and had smartly cropped hair, and that's how he always looked. His mother looked like a well dressed German matron. My father's sisters were well dressed, fashionable, in Poland, heels, summer dresses, suits, fancy hats, jewelry.

My father and his brother Sam and his sister had no interest in Vishniac, and had no interest in nostalgia, and had no interest in poor Jews, none at all. To my father, a poor Jew was someone to rip off, and then make fun of for his naiveté. My aunt is 95. She's still well-dressed; she learned good style on the fashionable streets of Cracow in the thirties.

Poland from 1850 to WW2 was full of all kinds of Jews, but mostly it was full of Jews in transition; many of the best chess players in Poland in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s were Jews who had absconded from religion and signed up for logic and secular argumentation, i.e. chess. Many of them were supposed to become torah scholars, and instead became chess scholars by the time they were ten or twelve.

The story "The Chosen" by Chaim Potok could have taken place, not just in 1960s Brooklyn, but in 1910 Odessa, Krakow, Warsaw, Lodz, or Lublin. The 'conversion' of the pre-modern Polish Jew to a modern scholar, athlete, scientist, businessman, swindler, gambler, jazz player, journalist, cabaret-owner started to take place even before the 1850s, but it started to accelerate about then, due to critical mass and changes in the world, which Poland, despite the myths, was part of.

Some of the research I did to get ready for my doctoral dissertation was a big scandal fought between modern Jews who made fun of the religious narrow-minded conservatives, and the religious conservatives. The fight was carried out in newspapers, in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. It lasted over a year. Date? 1857. Place? Brody, which was then in Poland. I translated hundreds of newspaper articles from microfilm, which showed that there was a substantial population of Jews who scorned the religious groups, and thought they were fossils and backward. This population of Jews was engaged not in scholarship, but in business, alongside Polish businessmen.

That's another myth – that all the Poles were poor and stupid. There were Jewish and Polish intellectuals, university students, labour organizers, athletes, who interacted, were friends, and didn't make a big deal about who was Jewish and who was Polish. They also fell in love with each other and married each other. All this, a century before 1939.

"Fiddler on the Roof," probably even more than Vishniac, did more to distort the historical image than anything else. "Fiddler on the Roof" distorted Sholem Aleichem's work. Sholem Aleichem was not at all interested in nostalgia; he was a satirist; he met, knew, and felt a strong kinship with, Mark Twain. He was not an observant Jew. His stories were stories for secular Jews, who read modern novels and stories and who were interested in literature and art. He would never have taken on the commission that Vishniac took on.

Some people may argue, "But Sholom Aleichem wrote in his will that any of his children or grandchildren who marry non Jews are written out of their inheritance." Yes, true, but he was non-observant. He was a satirist. He would have sued the makers of "Fiddler on the Roof" and he would have obtained court injunctions to block any public screening of the movie.

People will just say "I like 'The Fiddler on the Roof' myth; I like my myths. Who cares about facts or accuracy? I prefer my nostalgia straight up."


The Times published many thoughtful letters in response to "A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac."

Readers wrote to say that other famous photographers, including Robert Capa, not just Roman Vishniac, were under investigation for not accurately representing their work. One reader protested that "the writer, Alana Newhouse, gives credence to the voguish canard that Jews fabricate their victimization to suit their needs." Another wrote to protest the lack of focus on Vishniac's scientific work.

One wrote, "It's not so hard to understand why some American Jews would find it less threatening to think of those who fell victim to Nazi genocide as exotic and even as primitive ancestors, utterly unlike themselves and thus safely situated in the picturesque past."

"A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac"

Letters in response to "A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac"


  1. Thanks for posting Lowi's comments. I had read the NY Times article, but Lowi's remarks help me understand the significance of that article.

  2. Thanks, John. I love the guy. And you, too. And Roman Vishniac. Our whole dysfuncational, extended family of Poles and Jews! :-)

  3. To which i will add that there is a Klezmer music revival in Germany and Poland, in fact revivals of Jewish culture in various ways. I will find the link, but one of the critiques that i just read about was that it is a bagels and lox revival, another words overly sentimentalized in which Jews are fondly remembered as black hatted and bearded. Indeed in Krakow itself in the Jewish quarter they sell these ridiculous little jewish dolls, chasidic men playing violin, and even one with a bag of money and a gold coin. i saw a video the other day on a polish website, that had a kind of polish jewish page with a video of polish jews from the 30's, except its self selected for ultra-orthodox, no one looks modern. My Indian friend recently asked me if i had any of the original Hebrew versions of the songs from Fiddler on the Roof! funny.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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