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The Roman Vishniac Collection

The photographer Roman Vishniac created some of the most iconic images of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, documenting a world that would soon vanish. He also chronicled the rise of Nazism and the aftermath of World War II. However, the public has never had the opportunity to appreciate the breadth and depth of his work—of Vishniac’s 10,000 negatives, only about 350 have previously been published. The Museum has worked with the International Center of Photography (ICP) to put those images online and invites the public to help us learn more about Vishniac’s photographs.

Who Was Roman Vishniac?

Roman Vishniac (1897–1990) was born to a Russian-Jewish family. He grew up in Moscow where he studied biology and zoology. Vishniac’s family left Russia after the revolution and, after completing his studies, he joined them in Berlin. There he pursued his passion for photography by documenting life in his new city. 

As the Nazis rose to power in Berlin, Vishniac photographed the ominous changes in the city and also worked to document Germany-Jewish relief and social service organizations. In 1935, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) hired Vishniac to travel to Eastern Europe and take photographs documenting Jewish poverty and relief efforts to be used in its fundraising campaigns. In 1939, Vishniac pursued other AJDC assignments in Western Europe and worked as a freelance photographer there. After the German invasion of France, he was arrested and sent to an internment camp. With help from the AJDC and the remainder of his family’s resources, he secured release and immigrated with his wife and two children to the United States via Portugal in December 1940. They settled in New York, where Vishniac worked as a photographer, making portraits and documenting Jewish refugees and American-Jewish community life.

In 1947, Vishniac returned to Europe to document the aftermath of the war and the plight of refugees and those living in displaced persons camps. Back in the United States, Vishniac continued his work as photographer and scientist and became a pioneer in the new field of photomicroscopy. 

Vishniac’s photographs of Jewish life in prewar Eastern Europe gained renown in the aftermath of the Holocaust and were used to illustrate numerous books. Many people today are familiar with his work from his book Vanished World (1983). However, the public saw only a small fraction of Vishniac’s work before his daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn, entrusted his images to ICP and the Museum. This project makes them available to the public at large in hopes of learning more about the subjects of his photographs.

How You Can Help

Though Vishniac took thousands of photographs he only captioned a small fraction. By comparing his photographs to others in the Museum’s collection, Museum staff members have identified a number of people and locations, as you can see in this photo gallery featuring Vishniac photos and photos of the same subjects from the Museum archives. We invite you to view his full collection—spanning the prewar and postwar period—on the ICP website to help us make further identifications. If you recognize a person or a place, click the link below the photograph ("Add to the record") to generate an e-mail to Museum and ICP curators. Your efforts can help others learn about the vanished world documented by Vishniac.

The photographer Roman Vishniac created some of the most iconic images of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, documenting a world that would soon vanish—but captioning few of his photographs. Through a partnership with the International Center of Photography, Museum staff have discovered more about some of Vishniac's most well-known subjects.

The Farmer

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The Sisters

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The Young Girl

Roman Vishniac made this image of Nettie Stub, age 11 from Hanover, Germany, in the Polish detention camp Zbaszyn in November 1938. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sent Vishniac to Eastern Europe to make photographs for a fundraising campaign. The pictures he took have become some of the iconic images of the Holocaust. After she saw the photograph of herself in A Vanished World and contacted him, Roman Vishniac gave Nettie Katz, née Stub, prints of photographs he made in the Zbaszyn detention camp. She donated them to the Museum, which allowed curators to give more context to the well-known image of her taken by Vishniac. —Gift of Mara Vishniac Kohn, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley

The Survivor

The International Center of Photography asked Judith Cohen, director of the Museum’s Photo Archives, whether it would be possible to identify the woman in this Vishniac image by her tattoo number. Cohen checked with the Museum’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center, which was able to locate the number in the records of the International Tracing Service. She is Hanna Stern Weinberger, a physical therapist and masseuse, pictured here at the Jewish Hospital for Joint Diseases in East Harlem, New York, ca. 1948–51. —Gift of Mara Vishniac Kohn, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley