recess radio program

4/22/05
Roman Vishniac
    by John Cech

Perhaps it is the first warm day of spring, and the boys in the picture have pulled off their shirts and rolled up their trousers, forming themselves into a circle to play a ball game. The boys scuffle for position under the dappled shade that the trees throw over the dusty ground.

The photographer, Roman Vishniac, took this and and many other pictures of Jewish children in the villages and small towns of Poland, Hungary, Russia, and Romania in the years just before World War II. Thirty-six of these unassuming and heart-rending photographs are collected in a volume called Children of a Vanished World by Vishniac's daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn, as a moving testament to these and so many other young people who were lost in the Holocaust. Her father had taken these pictures at great risk to himself and his family, as part of an effort by an American-led organizaiton to call attention to the plight of the poor Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and to help raise funds for them.

Ultimately, the pictures had to be smuggled out of Germany, where the Vishiniacs had lived for years -- first to Paris, then Portugal, Cuba, and finally America. The Vishniacs barely escaped being consumed by the camps themselves, and when Roman made it to America and gathered his photographs together again, he quickly exhibited them, hoping to attract the attention of powerful political leaders, rousing them to action before these children and their parents were lost -- the children of tailors and farmers, cobblers and peddlers -- boys in their caps with tattered overcoats held together with safety pins. . . young scholars on the way to schul. . . or worried brothers checking on the contents of an unravelling market basket. A group of four girls bundled up against the cold, linking arms, as they promenade over the cobblestoned streets of a Polish town. Or another group crowded into the frame of a picture with their smiling faces, braided hair, arms thrown about each other's necks. Or another girl, who stands in the street, her coat and head dusted with flakes of snow, while she smiles at the camera, filling the middle of the picture with a warm radiance. These are pictures for Passover, which begins this weekend, that time of tasting again the bitter and the sweet, of remembering what has vanished and what will always live, vividly, hopefully, in the spirits of these children.

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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