Roman Vishniac remembered

Ethan Vishniac recalls his grandfather's adventurous spirit

Professor Ethan Vishniac
Ethan Vishniac enjoys telling stories. A professor of physics and astronomy at McMaster, Vishniac is the grandson of Roman Vishniac, the renowned Russian-American photojournalist who documented the daily life of Jews in the shtetls of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930’s.

Last August, Professor Vishniac moved to Hamilton, with his wife, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, the new McMaster University provost. Asked to recount some details of his grandfather’s life, Vishniac told a mesmerizing tale that outlines a series of fortuitous events that ultimately brought the Vishniac family to a save haven in the United States in the midst of a war that spelled doom for six million others.

“My grandfather,” recalled Vishniac “was a very intellectually ambitious person.” The young Roman Vishniac was born in 1897 to a well-to-do Russian Jewish family who, despite restrictions prohibiting Jews from living outside the Pale of Settlement, was able to acquire honourary citizenship and take up residence in Moscow. Roman’s earliest ambitions were to become a professor and a scholar, much to the disapproval of his father, Solomon, who had other plans for his son.

When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, the Vishniacs, together with the family of Roman’s fiancé Luta Alexandroff, fled to Latvia. The Alexandroffs were diamond traders and one of the many stories passed on to Vishniac was that Luta’s father crossed the border with a stack of Alexandroff diamonds hidden inside his wooden leg. After the dust had settled, the two families traveled to Berlin, along with hundreds of other Eastern European Jews who fled to Germany in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

In Germany, Solomon tried to set up his newly married son in a number of businesses, but Roman was completely uninterested. According to his grandson, “Roman seemed to have treated them all with a kind of passive aggression. He must have made his father crazy.” Eventually, however, Roman agreed to manage the family-owned apartment building where he was living, an arrangement that left him ample time to pursue his passion – photography.

According to Vishniac, his grandfather’s trips to shtetls in Eastern Europe grew out of a combination of things. “After the fact, he would say that he thought that the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were in terrible danger, and that this was a way of preserving their memories. But I don’t think it fully captures what was going on. Roman didn’t know that the Holocaust was coming any more than anyone else did. They were scary times and he thought it would be important to document the way of life in the shtetls. I think that for my grandfather, it was the first really unique endeavour that was interesting and creative and gave him an outlet.”

In the ensuing years, Roman took long and frequent trips to Eastern Europe, carrying a concealed camera. Upon his return, he would regale his family with stories about his travels – some of them, according to his grandson, that were a little hard to swallow. He claimed, for instance, to have been arrested no less than eleven times.

“Roman loved a good story. He often thought that stories have a higher truth to them, and that sometimes, details had to be changed. It was very charming to listen to him but after, you would wonder how it could have really happened that way.

“There’s a story he told that I never knew whether to believe,” said Vishniac. “He said that during Kristallnacht, he went out in an SS uniform and took pictures. Even when I was very young, it seemed like a weird story. Roman had a thick Russian accent all his life and if someone had stopped him and asked who he was, what would he have done?”

But his grandfather insisted that this was how he was able to photograph the horrific events that took place that night.

Years later, after Roman’s death, his daughter, Mara was cleaning out his apartment in Manhattan – a task that took months to complete – when she made a discovery. “My Aunt Mara found an old SS party uniform in a closet,” he said, and instantly, the collective doubt in the minds of his family was turned upside down. Maybe the story was true after all.

After Kristallnacht, it became clear to the Vishniacs that it was no longer safe to remain in Germany. On his next trip to Eastern Europe, Roman slipped into France, with the intention of waiting there for his family to join him. Luta and her daughter, Mara fled to Sweden, where Luta’s sister resided. But Vishniac’s father, Wolf, being of military age, was unable to join them and escaped to Latvia, where he spent his time desperately trying to get a Swedish visa. A fortuitous meeting on a Stockholm street between Luta’s sister and an old school friend who had connections in the Swedish state department led to a sudden change of attitude at the Swedish consulate. “My father got out of Latvia a month before the Red Army came across. After that, no one got out.”

Back in France, Roman had been arrested as an enemy alien and sent to a detention camp. When France fell to Germany in the summer of 1940, Roman escaped and fled to the Spanish border. From there he made his way to Portugal, the destination of thousands of other refugees seeking a passage to England or the United States.

Around the same time, Luta had decided that Sweden was no longer safe. “The Swedes were hedging their bets,” said Vishniac. “Sweden was shooting down British planes during the Battle of Norway, and letting German ones go and Luta thought the Swedes would end up on the German side.”

She decided that she and Mara would try crossing occupied Europe, passing themselves off either as Soviet citizens or Latvian refugees, and meet Wolf, whom she had instructed to travel separately, in Lisbon. None of them had any idea that Roman was also in Lisbon.

Having reached Lisbon, Luta and her children took up residence in one of the many hotels used by the refugee community. What happened next was like a scene from a Hollywood movie.

“Lisbon hotels had open air elevators, which were essentially just cages. My father told the story of getting up one morning and taking the elevator with Luta and Mara. Looking over into the elevator going in the opposite direction, he saw his father. They had a big reunion and hugged and cried in the hotel lobby.”

The Vishniacs, who had the incredible good fortune of making it safely to Lisbon, once again found themselves in the enviable position of securing visas for the United States. They were sponsored by family members who were American citizens and arrived in New York in January of 1942.

A new chapter of their lives was about to begin, with Roman now seeking work as a portrait photographer.

”But it was very difficult to make a living because Roman was Roman,” said his grandson. “He would take photographs that he thought were interesting yet they were not necessarily the photographs that made people happy.”

His grandfather told the story of a client who had asked Roman to photograph his young son. Roman, anxious to please, set about the task.

“He tried to take the most interesting, revealing kind of picture. But when he showed the proofs to the father, the father was very upset and said he’d made his son look like some kind of freak. It turned out that the child was autistic. Roman had noticed this and his photograph accentuated that. For my grandfather, the point of the story was that his camera’s eye had not failed him. It had seen a critical detail and brought it to the surface.”

Wolf and Mara had their own struggles. Wolf, with a high school correspondence certificate and letters of recommendation from a couple of Swedish professors, was having a hard time convincing admissions officers to accept him into Brooklyn College. Once again, fate intervened. Luta had another sister who had immigrated to the United States many years earlier. This sister, who was an anthropologist, contacted an old friend at the American Museum of Natural History on Wolf’s behalf. This time, Wolf’s hidden saviour was famed anthropologist, Margaret Meade, whose glowing letter gained him immediate admission. He studied for many years and became an acclaimed microbiologist.

Mara was spending all of her time memorizing English phrases.

“She’d memorize how to order a corned beef and mustard in English so she could go to the corner deli and be mistaken for an American. Evidently, he looked at her and asked her what kind of bread she wanted. Either way he broke the script. She was helpless. She burst into tears and ran home.”

In America, Roman and Luta struggled in their marriage and they finally broke up. After the war, Roman went to Las Vegas for a divorce and then traveled to Berlin to bring his mistress, Edith Ernst back to New York. The two were married and lived together until his death in 1991.

It was during this period that the name Roman Vishniac became associated in the public mind with the haunting photographs of Eastern European Jewish life. Of his 16,000 photographs, only 2,000 were recovered. After his death, Mara Vishniac Kohn became the guardian of her father’s legacy.

The great luck that pursued Wolf in his early years finally ran out. In 1973, he was working in Antarctica on behalf of the American space program. He had a tragic accident while traveling in foggy weather and fell to his death from a high ridge. The Vishniac crater on Mars is named in his honour.

Roman survived his son by almost 20 years, and passed away in 1991 when Ethan Vishniac was 35 years old.

“He was a ‘larger than life’ character”, Vishniac said, whose resemblance to his grandfather increases as he gets older. Commenting on the relationship between his own father and Roman, Vishniac acknowledges that Wolf consciously strove to distance himself from his father’s tendency to embellish.

“My father was a scrupulously honest man. He didn’t adorn, didn’t exaggerate. He felt that was wrong.”

At the same time, “They were both intellectually ambitious and imaginative people… I like to think I take more after my father in my approach to telling stories. I try to be as honest and as exact as he would be. But I like telling stories and in that I am like Roman.”

For both Vishniac and his wife, it was a complete surprise when they found out that McMaster University was planning to host an exhibit of selected photos from Roman Vishniac’s “A Vanished World” this coming January. That Hamilton, Ontario should find itself the new home of a descendant of Roman Vishniac at the same moment in time as its university hosts an exhibit of the famous photographer seems like just another instance of fate playing its hand.