Photographer Roman Vishniac is widely known and admired for his iconic images of pre-World War II life in Eastern Europe, a world that vanished due to the Holocaust. He was also a pioneer of microphotography, a technique that combines photography and microscopy to reveal the smallest aspects of nature in vivo and living color.
Vishniac was always observing the world around him. Now, a new documentary film turns the lens back at him and sheds light on who he was not only professionally, but also as a person.
“Mara was such an amazing person. And she was a captivating storyteller. She had this incredible gift of remembering things through a child’s eyes — what everything felt like and what those experiences were like. She never lost that connection to her childhood viewpoint,” Bialis said in an interview with The Times of Israel.
The film, which premiered in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and will screen at the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival beginning May 11, is as much about Kohn’s sometimes fraught relationship with her talented and idiosyncratic father as it is about Vishniac’s biography.
“He regarded himself as a mixture of Moses and Superman,” Kohn said of her father, who tended toward self-aggrandizement.
Later in life, Vishniac claimed he had an incredible number of doctorates and spoke eight languages. One television program on his microphotography referred to him as a scientist and philosopher. Another called him an expert on Oriental art and a collector of medieval manuscripts. A consummate storyteller, it was hard to detect whether there was a kernel of truth hidden within all these embellishments.
In “Vishniac,” Bialis seamlessly weaves together many of Vishniac’s 30,000 images (mainly still, but also some moving), his writings, general archival footage, interviews with historians and Vishniac relatives, and dramatic reenactments filmed on location in Poland and at a California studio. (Bialis’s daughter impressively plays Mara Vishniac Kohn in these scenes.)
At the heart of it all are Kohn’s memories and narration.
Always looking through the camera or microscope
Roman Vishniac (1897–1990) was born near St. Petersburg, Russia, and grew up in Moscow. His successful businessman father, Solomon Vishniac, had a special permit to live in the major city instead of in the Pale of Settlement with most other Jews.
Fascinated with cameras and microscopes from a young age, Vishniac always wanted to be a scientist and studied biology at university. However, his academic pursuits were curtailed by the Russian Revolution, at which time his bourgeois family escaped to Berlin.
The culturally and socially free Weimar Republic served as fertile ground for Vishniac’s visual creativity. Uninterested in following his father and grandfather into business, he insisted on doing nothing but his photography and micrography. He, his wife Luta, son Wolf (born 1922), and daughter Mara (born 1926) were supported by Vishniac’s parents.
Filmmaker Bialis recreates moving scenes in which Vishniac includes young Wolf and Mara on his nature walks or in his activities in his home lab filled with cages and aquariums for everything from monkeys to lizards.
“He was always calling me to see the beautiful things that he saw,” Vishniac Kohn recounted.
“He would tell me that the closer you come, the more beautiful it is,” she added.
She especially loved spending time in the darkroom with her father, watching images emerge, the dark areas first.
Despite these happy memories, Kohn speaks in the film about the uncomfortable tension between her parents, who had drifted apart. She recalled her mother, brother, and herself being a unit living a regular life, while her father was immersed in his own world. In addition, Vishniac began a long-term extramarital relationship with a young non-Jewish woman named Edith in 1932.
Making it out of Europe in the nick of time
What would come next in the Vishniac family’s story is what initially sparked Bialis’s interest in eventually making her documentary. In 1996, Bialis met Kohn at a lecture given by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in Santa Barbara, California.
“Mara and I both lived in Santa Barbara, so it wasn’t surprising that we eventually met. The Jewish community there is quite small,” Bialis said.
The two women were seated next to each other, and before the lecture started, Kohn told Bialis about how her family escaped Europe to safety in New York at the very last moment.
Roman and Luta Vishniac divorced in 1935 but did not file the papers in hopes of getting a family visa to exit Nazi Germany. Following the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, the Vishniacs sent 16-year-old Wolf to relatives in Riga, Latvia, and Mara, 12, to a refugee children’s home in Sweden. Mara eventually reunited with her mother in Stockholm, but Roman, who had made it to the south of France, ended up in an internment camp in September 1939.
Since all four family members were Latvian rather than German citizens through Luta’s birth in Riga, Luta was able to get the Latvian authorities to arrange for Vishniac’s eventual release. With the US still accepting Latvians (but not German Jews), they were able to get visas. Luta and the children had to risk traveling back through Berlin to make their way to Lisbon, Portugal. They met Roman there, and together they boarded a ship that arrived in New York on December 1, 1940.
“I was sitting at the edge of my seat as she told me this amazing story,” Bialis said.
Circumstances dictate photographic subject and style
In tracing Vishniac’s development as a photographer, Bialis includes in the film his early Russian pictorial style work and his Weimar-era modernist images featuring strong angles, sharp contrasts, and geometry.
As the Nazis rose to power and imposed anti-Jewish race laws, Vishniac would photograph his young daughter Mara standing in front of posters and other types of propaganda. It was a way of documenting what was happening without drawing attention.
Once the Nazi regime banned most Jews from their jobs, Vishniac documented the Jewish institutions established to employ Jewish professionals and care for the community. These included schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, and hachsharot (agricultural programs to prepare young Jews for immigration to Palestine).
At the same time, he began traveling to Eastern Europe to capture life in the big cities, towns, and small shtetls. He even reached remote Jewish farming communities in the Carpathian mountains.
Those trips, eventually commissioned by the American Joint Distribution Committee, produced not only stunning images but also documentation of the poverty of Eastern European Jews. For Vishniac, they were a means of advocating for his fellow Jews, and for the AJDC they were a tool for fundraising for relief for those same people.
Although these photos were an assimilated Western European Jew’s perspective on the Ostjuden, they provided Vishniac with an opportunity to grow closer to his own Jewish identity.
“He felt a close relationship to the people he was photographing,” Kohn said.
Bialis noted that Vishniac’s modernist photographs showed his striving to be part of the mainstream. His work in Eastern Europe denoted a clear shift toward particularism and an appreciation for the spiritual and traditional Jewish life.
“As we were going through his photographs and his writings, we could kind of see him falling in love with his own people,” she said.
During the war, Vishniac held three exhibitions of these photos to raise consciousness for the plight of European Jewry. And after the war, the AJDC sponsored him to return to Europe to document the destruction and the hundreds of thousands of Jewish displaced persons. (Already divorced from Luta, he reunited with and married Edith in Germany and brought her to the US).
Carving out a niche with microphotography
Once in America, Vishniac had to hustle to support his family. He shot portraits and managed to get some magazine work. He even brought his young teenage daughter along as he showed up unannounced at Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton University. He convinced Einstein to let him take some pictures of him.
“He had enormous chutzpah,” Kohn said.
Bialis said she got to see those images a couple of decades before beginning work on “Vishniac.” It was when she and her parents were visiting Kohn at her home not long after Bialis initially met her. At the time, all of Vishniac’s photos, negatives, journals, and other materials were stored at Kohn’s home, where she lived with her second husband Walter Kohn, an Austrian Jewish refugee and Nobel Prize-winning theoretical chemist and physicist.
“She opened the closet where a lot of the stuff was, and this portfolio of Einstein just fell out,” Bialis recalled.
Wanting to make the cover of LIFE magazine, Vishniac concentrated on his microphotography and a technique called colorization that he claimed to have invented. His insistence on observing things in vivo and motion, rather than squashed between two pieces of glass on a slide, was considered his legitimate contribution to science and helped him secure a major grant from the National Science Foundation to create the widely viewed “Living Biology” film series.
Vishniac lectured widely and thought of himself as a true scientist. However, the scientific community thought otherwise, seeing him merely as a photographer and romantic storyteller. He had a habit of describing nature as a narrative, rather than as facts and data.
Even Vishniac’s own son Wolf, who became a renowned microbiologist, was uncomfortable with his claims and theories. (Wolf died tragically in 1973 at age 51 from a fall from a cliff while on a scientific expedition in Antarctica.)
Choosing among tens of thousands of images
Bialis, who became close to Kohn over the years she interviewed her for the film, was given full access to the Vishniac Archive at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California, Berkeley. Before 2018, the archive was curated by Maya Benton and housed at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.
Most of Vishniac’s scientific photography is housed at the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. Kohn also gave Bialis access to that.
Faced with an abundance of riches, it was difficult for Bialis to choose which images to include in “Vishniac.”
“His photos are all stunning. It was amazing to have access to every single frame that he shot and to be able to choose. It is mind-blowing how amazing they are, especially in terms of the way he captured the faces of people. And I feel like there’s some sort of magical connection that he had with his subjects, the way they’re looking at him. He sort of was able to capture someone’s essence,” she said.
Kohn died in 2018 at age 92 and did not live to see the completion of the film. Bialis said that was very difficult, but that she was pleased by the response of Kohn’s daughter and granddaughters. They were thankful that the film gave Kohn — a compelling and accomplished person in her own right — a chance to come out from the shadow of the successful and famous men in her life.
“Mara’s daughter spoke at the film’s premiere and said that it was the story that her mother wanted to tell. That made me feel great,” Bialis said.
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