Revealed: the last days of a doomed people

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The Independent Online
A BEARDED man hunches his shoulders and clutches his overcoat to his chest to keep off the driving snow that has already blackened beneath his worn boots. He follows a woman carrying a covered tray, her bent head and shoulders swathed in scarves, as she struggles past a crumbling building.

It is an uncompromising image of the desperation of life in the Jewish ghetto of Cracow in 1938. It is given added poignancy by the fact that the street name has been erased in an attempt to protect the community from identification.

The picture is one of a collection of secretly taken images by photojournalist Roman Vishniac, on show for the first time in Britain.

Vishniac spent six years recording the lives of persecuted Eastern European Jews on film during the 1930s. His pictures are one of the few remaining documentary records of these estranged and poverty-stricken communities that were virtually wiped out during the Second World War.

The photographs on display in a London gallery are the first prints Vishniac made from his negatives. Only 2,000 of the 16,000 harrowing photographs he took between 1933 and 1939 to record his doomed race survived the war. Much of his work was destroyed by the Nazis.

Vishniac travelled 5,000 miles between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains photographing children, adults, traders and street scenes in the Jewish quarters and ghettos.

It was dangerous work. He risked arrest if discovered, and the Jews were nervous of being photographed, as well as disapproving on religious grounds. Vishniac hid his camera in his clothes and took photographs through the buttonhole of his coat. He sewed the negatives into the lining.

The power of his images lies in the way that, despite the constraints of his working conditions, he was able to convey the struggle of a people to exist in what were virtually siege conditions. His subjects' eyes reveal their weariness and unease; he harshness of their lives is all too evident.

While the 30 prints that make up the exhibition at the HackelBury gallery tell their own story, Vishniac also made a series of notes on the back of his prints.

Of a homeless man carrying a package and standing on a street corner in Poland, he wrote: "Wife and children left to earn something by begging. The bundle under his arm is all that is left of home, furniture and belongings. All earthly goods wrapped in a piece of paper. The homeless man eyed me suspiciously. As always, my camera was hidden. After taking the picture, I walked up to him and heard his story. He had lost his job, his room. He had no means, no hope, no aim."

Modern prints of Vishniac's work were shown in London and New York 15 years ago in a celebrated exhibition, "A Vanished World", but the original photographs on show at the HackelBury were not included. The vintage collection has been at the Institute of Contemporary Photography in New York since 1983. Unsold prints will be returned to the Vishniac estate after the London show.

Marcus Bury, who runs the gallery with his wife, Sascha Hackel, said: "These are very emotional pictures and not really the sort of thing many people would like to buy and take home with them. It is haunting and poignant work. The images... make you realise the profound sense of change taking place in so many people's lives: the deprivation, degradation and the cruelty that they experienced even before the war officially started."

Vishniac was born into a privileged Russian Jewish family in 1897. His later concern about the plight of Eastern European Jews came from his first hand experience of the resurgence of anti-semitism in his own country, when many Jews were exiled to Siberia. As a young man, he twice escaped firing squads, before fleeing to Berlin, where he lived until Hitler came to power.

Until 1880 most of the Jews in Europe had lived in closed communities and needed a police pass to travel. There was then a gradual liberalisation, but when Hitler came to power many people began to link Germany's past successes with its anti-Jewish legislation.

Vishniac fled Germany but was interned in the Du Ruchard concentration camp in Vichy France, before escaping to America in 1940. He died in 1990.

At the time of the "Vanished World" exhibition in 1983, Vishniac tried to explain the motivation behind his documentary work, saying: "Why did I do it? A hidden camera to record the way of life of a people who had no desire to be captured on film may seem strange to you. The pictures depict people and places that no longer exist, yet in my memory they do exist. I hope that you will look at each picture with its story and perhaps you, too, will see the world that I saw."

Roman Vishniac, HackelBury Fine Art, 4 Launceston Place, London W8 till 18 December. Tel: 0171 937 8688.