Picks and Pans Review: In the Warsaw Ghetto: Summer 1941

updated 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Photographs by Willy Georg

In the pictures he took in the 1930s of the doomed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, Vishniac was not just a fine photographer. He was an indispensable witness, present at the scene of a crime but before it took place.

A Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union, where he had studied biology, Vishniac and his family were living in Berlin when he made these photographs between 1935 and 1939. Shooting in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Vishniac worked for a Jewish group that hoped to alert the world to the worsening plight of fellow Jews.

As it would turn out, Vishniac was making a final record of those people. Knowing what we know now—that the Nazis and their allies would soon devour nearly all of these men, women and children—a sense of foreboding hangs over even the most benign of these scenes. To Give Them Light (Simon & Schuster, $45) doesn't have as many beautifully fashioned images as the definitive collection of Vishniac's work, A Vanished World, published seven years before his death in 1990. Some pages have the flavor of a snapshot inventory, quick visual jottings that show how a street looked, what people wore, how the sunlight fell across a Polish country road. Then you see a footloose shot of children at play in the streets of Vilna, and you realize at once what was lost.

Willy Georg's beseeching pictures of the Warsaw Ghetto are a record of the crime in progress. After the Germans marched into Poland in September 1939, they walled off an old Jewish neighborhood of the Polish capital as a "quarantine" zone for a half million Jews. Over the next four years, virtually all would die. Those who did not succumb to starvation and illness were shipped to the gas chambers at Treblinka. Others were killed in a brave but futile three-week uprising in 1943.

The Nazis forbade picture-taking in the ghetto, except by their own propaganda squads. The murder of the Warsaw Jews was supposed to take place out of camera range. For the most part it did, which gives Georg's close-up view its terrible fascination. A professional photographer, he was a 30-year-old radio operator in the German Army when he got a one-day pass from his commanding officer to take a camera into the ghetto. In Warsaw Ghetto (Aperture, $40), Rafael F. Scharf, a British writer of Polish descent who persuaded Georg to make his pictures public, has combined them with excerpts from the diaries of Jews living in the ghetto.

There are images here that the imagination could never create, like his shot of a sidewalk peddler selling Star of David armbands—required by the Nazis for all Jews—as though they were pencils or greeting cards. (The Nazis beat anyone wearing a crumpled or dirty armband.) But even Georg's simple portraits are grimly compelling. These are the faces of people held hostage. And we know how their story will end. The helplessness we see in their eyes is the mirror of our own.

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