Vishniac was a refugee, who had moved (or fled?) from Russia to Berlin in 1920. He got married at the border, and his daughter Mara, who appears in his photos of Berlin in the 30s, must have been born there. She functions in them as a kind of decoy. Photography wasn’t an entirely safe activity for a Jew there and then, certainly not when snapping the Nazi posters and symbols that Vishniac wanted to record, so Mara posed in front or to the side of the real subject and tried to look like the reason for getting out the camera.
I am fighting off various superstitions about this subject. I first saw Vishniac’s pictures of the Jews of Eastern Europe in a small exhibition in Camden Town which I caught on the last day. I soon found out that he set off on three years of exploring the lives of poor Jews in Poland, Ruthenia and Ukraine in the very same year that American photographers were sent into the Deep South to record the lives of sharecroppers driven into destitution by the Wall Street crash and years of drought. I am thinking especially of James Agee and Walker Evans who spent three months in the fall of 1936 living with three families in rural Alabama.
In that case there’s a wonderful convergence between Agee’s words and Evans’ images. With Vishniac there are images and few words, at least for me, so far. I need to wait and find out more, about Vishniac’s routes and the length of his stays—did he keep returning to Berlin? And how deeply connected with his subjects did he become?
But I feel a superstitious urgency to write about Vishniac and his pictures now, in the heightened moment of first meeting, and I have found an Agee of that moment in Europe whom I can work into my account of Vishniac, or whom I can at least feel hovering overhead. My European Agee is Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who kept a remarkable diary and was deported with her family from the camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands to Poland, where she died on 30 November 1943. So the dates and places don’t quite match, but she stands as a strong arguer for catastrophe transfigured by imagination, the imagination of a 27-year-old.
I can’t stop even now to read Etty’s diaries, but have learned from first glimpses that she had the most powerful sense that the acts of the oppressor were not ultimately real, lacking the force and presence of an inner truth she felt most fervently. Maybe something like this conviction, though unconscious, contributes to the inordinate power I feel in Vishniac’s images from the East, though I want to resist the urge to read the Holocaust into every one of these pictures that so often seem directly comparable with Evans’ from the American South.
In one of his most famous lectures Heidegger says something about nearness and farness that hit me, when I came across it, with revelatory force, and went like this: that we have lost track of what is truly near and essential to us, forsaking it for that which is far away, with which we have nothing important to do.
Vishniac’s pictures of the furthest fringes of Europe seem at first to have the appeal of the exotic and primitive, of lives unimaginably far from ours. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town tried to represent all parts of his career equally, or at least not to neglect long stretches, such as the fifty-year aftermath he spent in the USA. I found I had almost no time for the American pictures, except the ones which showed the deprivations of wartime, like the image above of women waiting to buy rationed meat.
The pictures from the East seem to get closer to the essence of things, as do the interiors of sharecroppers’ houses in the Alabama book, or the careworn faces of farmers and their underfed children who have imbibed anxiety with their mothers’ milk. We find such emotions in children from both these places so far apart.
How does the child in the Warsaw basement flat learn his alert caution? I don’t know anywhere else except the Alabama images where you see the rudest elements of the barest lives brought so near, with such devoted attention, as here in this basement, in the infinite variety of the ragged kindling or the coarse richness of the curtain or the bleakness of the cupboard. Evans’ pictures generally look more posed, or is it composed? Vishniac’s daring in pushing the boy to the edge of the frame seems extreme, but it was probably also the way of getting him to feel that the camera wasn’t pointed at him, and thus of catching him starting to relax.
So you have in some way lived these objects, if not these lives. If you feel you have lived the lives, they have often come to you through the faces, and it can almost be the number of lines in a not so old face that keeps you focused, deciphering it. The Ruthenian farmer above was also a tanner, the caption tells us, an economic complexity which makes a doubling in the character.
One of my own uncanny overlaps with Etty Hillesum is that someone gives her a copy of Crime and Punishment in two volumes, thinking it the right reading for such desperate times. This has just happened to me too, and I am looking everywhere for the lopsided proportions I love in Dostoevsky and finding them in Vishniac’s portraits. In the image above, as with Marmeladov, one of the writer’s most memorable creations, who disappears when you’ve barely met him, a strongly characterised figure appears round the corner of a larger, less characterised one, and their enigmatic exchange is never explained.
Some images have eluded me almost entirely. Rabbis in ill-fitting, food- or mud-stained robes with three books under one arm, a bookcase with three shelves of battered books, the library of one of many rabbis in the remote, semi-mythical town of Mukachevo. The only image I can find of this collection of books adds its own faintness to this precarious sight, on which much ink has been spilt by later writers.
My nearness to these places and these people, both like and unlike the ones Agee and Evans discovered, mostly urban not rural, and thus not conforming to the usual American idea of the most rooted kind of life, my nearness comes over me in those dirty crowded rooms devoted to reading, the yeshivas and perhaps even more the cheders, where one boy looking up in a visionary way is, we learn, one of the survivors, now living in Woodstock, New York, and a Buddhist.
I have learned since writing this that Vishniac’s explorations were much riskier than I realised, so the parallel with Agee and Evans could seem frivolous to those who know the situation better. The Jews of Warsaw were already subject to crippling regulation, like a government-sponsored boycott of Jewish shops that forced many out of business. Jews were eventually prohibited from practising most trades except those considered low, like portering, a group Vishniac joined and lived among, loading and pulling wagons himself, which led to some of the best, most intimate pictures (and brought him nearer to Agee and Evans’ kind of immersion than I knew). There were streets in which Jewish bagel-sellers were not allowed. Such restrictions and indignities are all too familiar from Victor Klemperer’s diaries recording life in Dresden in the 1930s, and Polish techniques of oppression may sometimes be copied from German precedents.