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“Jewish school children, Mukachevo”, c. 1935–38 by Roman Vishniac (© Mara Vishniac Kohn. CoUrtesy International Center of Photography)


So the Vishniac photographs, published in 1983 in a book titled A Vanished World, have a particular resonance. Meant to be heart-wrenching and evocative when Vishniac first took them, they were to become some of the most emblematic of any in existence. They have come to dominate public understanding of the doomed Jewish world of Eastern Europe.

There can be no question that the Vishniac pictures were not mere propaganda. There are many sources establishing widespread Jewish poverty in Carpatho-Ruthenia as well as the strength of Hasidism. Nevertheless, a focus exclusively on his most famous images may be unfair to the photographer and misleading to the historian.

Therefore it is fitting that the wonderful Vishniac exhibition now showing at the Jewish Museum in London until February 26, 2019, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, includes, beside many of the iconic works, some of his lesser-known ones taken in Western Europe shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. There is added biographical and explanatory material and even a silent film of Jewish refugees in Marseilles learning new skills in 1939, doubtless to promote the message of their usefulness to governments reluctant to admit them. A twin exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery focuses on Vishniac’s work in New York after the Second World War.

The feeling which evidently prompted the Jewish Museum to stage its exhibition was that Vishniac’s vision in his fundraising work in Eastern Europe presented, for understandable reasons, the truth but not the entire truth. A collective portrait considerably at variance with Vishniac’s emerges from interviews with Auschwitz survivors deported from Munkacs. They were questioned when they arrived in Budapest after their liberation by DEGOB (the National Committee for Attending Deportees). With exceptions, the survivors report that Munkacs Jews generally had “lived well”. They were “tradesmen, craftsmen, doctors and lawyers”. As a cattle merchant, said one, “our father earned a lot”. Another was a grain dealer who “made a decent living until 1943”. An architect's family lived “on a good middle-class level”. Another survivor came from a family owning two houses “in very good financial circumstances” from a furniture and stool factory.

The same relative prosperity struck me when I looked at a small number of my mother’s prewar pictures which somehow survived the Holocaust. Together with several other sets of photographs collected by relatives and friends, we discovered an alternative, more nuanced view of Munkacs's 13,000 Jews on the eve of destruction.
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Marilyn Herman
December 9th, 2018
11:12 PM
Thank you for this interesting article. It throws light on a lot of things. My father (David Herman's brother), was from Munkacs.

Ros Gelbart nee Herman
December 8th, 2018
12:12 PM
I so enjoyed your account of Jewish life in pre-war Munkacs. My father and his family lived near the Corso and he also spoke of the diverse and vibrant community. We self-published his memoirs, which included childhood memories of family life as well as his experiences in the Holocaust, in David’s Story - see www.45aid.org. Thanks also for so many helpful pointers to other writing on the subject!

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