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1990: A Microbiologist Who Photographed the anti-Semitism of Europe Dies

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Roman Vishniac, seated, wearing suit and tie and his trademark camera, 1977.
Roman Vishniac, with his trademark camera, 1977.Credit: Andrew A. Skolnick, Wikimedia Commons

On January 22, 1990, the photographer and microbiologist Roman Vishniac died, at age 92.

Vishniac is best known for his photographs of traditional Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe before World War II, documenting a world that, it soon became clear, was on the brink of annihilation. But as a professional biologist, Vishniac also spent much of his life doing scientific research, and, in particular, doing pioneering work in microscope photography.

Roman Vishniac was born on August 19, 1897, in Pavlovsk, outside St. Petersburg, in czarist Russia. His father, Solomon Vishniac, was an umbrella manufacturer; his mother, the former Manya Aleksandrov, was the daughter of a diamond dealer. Because of the family’s fortunate economic circumstances, they had permission to live outside the Pale of Settlement, and Roman grew up in Moscow.

Childhood pictures of cockroach cells

His interest in photography and biology began in childhood: By age seven, Roman had his own microscope and camera. Family lore says that he quickly found a way to hook one up to the other, and he was soon taking photographs of cockroach cells.

After initially being home-schooled, Roman attended private school in Moscow, then began studying zoology at the city’s Shanyavsky Institute (later university) in 1914. There, he completed both an undergraduate and graduate degrees, writing a graduate degree on metamorphosis in salamanders.

He also served in the Russian army, under the czarist, Kerensky and Bolshevik regimes.

In 1920, Vishniac departed for Berlin, where his parents had moved in the chaos following the revolution. He stopped on the way in Latvia, where he married Leah (Luta) Bagg, a Latvian Jew whom he had a met at a spa outside Moscow. They repeated their vows in a Jewish wedding once they were in Berlin. They would have two children, Wolf and Mara.

In Berlin, Vishniac pursued his photography and photomicroscopy, building a processing lab in his apartment. At the same time, both his parents and his in-laws set him up in a variety of businesses, but none was successful.

Photographing anti-Semitism

Vishniac photographed the vibrant street life of 1920s Berlin. But after the rise of the Nazi party, in 1933, his focus shifted to capturing the growing public signs of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism. Using young Mara as a decoy, he would focus his lens on the swastikas and armed bullies that were taking over the public space. He also photographed relief services provided by Jewish organizations in Germany as Jews were gradually expelled from most realms of German society.

In 1935, the Joint Distribution Committee commissioned Vishniac to travel to Central and Eastern Europe to document the lives of members of Jewish communities there. for fundraising purposes. Although he visited Jews of all social classes, both religious and secular, it is the images he took of traditional communities – in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and other countries -- emphasizing, in the words of the Yivo Encyclopedia, “piety, poverty, and persecution,” that later were widely exhibited and published, and have in a large sense formed modern society’s image of pre-Holocaust European Jewry.

Roman and his family remained in Europe until after the start of World War II, and he was himself arrested and interned in a French camp for stateless persons. Released with the help of the JDC, he, Luta and their children arrived in New York on the eve of the New Year, 1941. He managed to save only a small percentage of the 16,000 negatives he had taken.

In the United States, Vishniac began to exhibit his images from Europe, hoping to arouse interest in the fate of the Jews there. Something of a polymath, he also studied and taught such diverse subjects as art history, numismatics, Asian art and philosophy. His pioneering work in biological photography included the taking of images through the eye of the firefly.  

In New York, he divorced Luta and remarried. His son Wolf became a biologist too, and was killed while on an expedition to Antarctica in 1973. Daughter Mara became the caretaker of her father’s often poorly documented photographs, and has done a lot both to preserve them and to increase understanding of the circumstances under which they were shot.