The Vanishing Point
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered
International Center of Photography
Through May 5, 2013
I remember the first time I looked through my parents' copy—every suburban Jewish family had one—of photographer Roman Vishniac's volume A Vanished World. It was 1988 and I was 11 years old; I pored over the photographs of bearded men and basement-dwelling children, surprised to find myself captivated. I was vaguely aware that most of the people in the pictures had been murdered, but that was not what haunted me. The photographs reminded me of my artist mother's favorite paintings by Rembrandt—where the light, as she described it, seemed to come not from any external source, but from within the figures' faces.
Ten years later, I began my doctoral work in Yiddish literature and came to know not only many of the dimensions of that "vanished world" (a place, as it turned out, where I would never want to live) but also the strange fire that burned within it. A half-century before the Holocaust, Ashkenazi culture was already ignited by what scholars call the ethnographic impulse—the urge its writers and artists felt to record whatever they could of a life and language that were already considered on the brink of extinction. Countless Yiddish stories, plays, and films include gratuitous scenes or descriptions of holiday observances, superstitions, ritual objects, food, and details of dress. The shtetl nostalgia that still flourishes in American Jewish life had already begun, fifty years before the gas chambers horrifically ended the argument or, at least, transferred it to other continents in shadowed form.
I didn't know any of this yet. All I saw, then, was the light within.