Then Darkness Fell
He Secretly Photographed the Doomed Jews of Europe as Hitler Rose to Power
From the moment he read Mein Kampf, in 1925, Roman Vishniac took Hitler at his word. "Everybody said, 'He is an anti-Semite only until he comes to power,' " Vishniac recalls." 'Afterward, he won't need to be an anti-Semite. He will not murder any Jews.' I knew the danger was very serious, but nobody believed me." So, determined to record the age-old city and shtetl life of his people before it was snuffed out, Vishniac repeatedly trekked across Eastern Europe between 1934 and 1939. To blend in, he posed as a vagabond peddler. To avoid arrest by police as a spy—and because strict Orthodox Jews took the Torah's prohibition of graven images as a ban on having their pictures taken—Vishniac rigged his bulky Rolleiflex inside a capacious coat, the lens peeking through a buttonhole and the shutter cable fed through his sleeve to his right hand. In a scarf, he says, he concealed a small Leica. Vishniac had been taking pictures since his youth in Russia. The son of a wealthy family from a town near St. Petersburg, he became a biology professor and earned a medical degree before emigrating with his family to Latvia and then Berlin after the Russian Revolution. Surviving 11 arrests in his journeys as a photographer, Vishniac brought some pictures to the U.S. in 1941, hiding the rest in France. Of 16,000 negatives, he was later able to recover only 2,000. A few of his ghetto images became famous, but only with the recent publication of 180 prints in A Vanished World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $65) has his achievement been widely recognized. For Vishniac, who lives in New York with his wife, Edith, the pleasure is mixed with pain. "I lost 101 members of my family [in the Holocaust]," he says. "When people ask me about it, it's very difficult. I don't know where to start, because I know too much."