Vishniac: Documenting Jewish Life in Pre-War Europe

Phillip Mogilnitsky as Roman Vishniac in Vishniac. Courtesy of Abramorama.

Vishniac is a documentary about Roman Vishniac, a photographer best remembered for capturing Jewish life before the Holocaust.

A camera can be a magical thing. But for one photographer, he captured images that would have otherwise been lost to history if not for immigrating to America. Nearly 90 years later, these photos are just about all that remain from communities wiped out in Hitler’s systemic genocide of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. His work would later change science photography in taking images through microscopy. But anyway, the main focus on the film is the images taken during 1935-38 in Eastern Europe. All in all, there are 16,000 images in the archives.

For Jews in Europe, life would change for the worse in the years that followed. Some had the incredible foresight to make their way to America. Others were not so lucky. British Mandate Palestine was a tougher reach because of the British controlling movement into the country. They would get even more controlling after the Holocaust.

For some families, Vishniac’s photos could very well be the only record that they have of their ancestors. That’s how it was with Lisa Wahler’s family in the documentary–a subject that make for a compelling documentary in its own right. A photo of her grandfather, Chaim Simcha Mechlowitz, just happened to be on exhibit at a museum! What are the odds?!? A farmer and tanner, the photo is one of the most famous in the collection. Four children survived the war but Chaim, his second wife, and most family members would perish at Auschwitz. But anyway, Vishniac’s photos are among the last ones to survive of Jewish communities in Europe. Again, the Nazis did a terrible number on the Jews in Hitler’s Final Solution. I should not have to remind you of the fact that families are still fighting for the return of stolen artwork.

The photographer grew up in Russia before making his way to Berlin. He would travel throughout Eastern Europe, including Warsaw. His family would make it out in 1940. Even though their marriage was on the rocks, they didn’t file paperwork until later so that they could have an attempt at a better life in America. Following the Holocaust, Vishniac would travel back to Europe, taking photos of a changed Berlin as well as the displaced persons camps.

It’s through Roman’s daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn, that we experience the documentary. While she grew up wanting to escape Roman’s shadow, she learned to embrace his legacy in preserving the work. But anyway, her own memories help audiences to learn about who her father was as a person. Unfortunately, she is no longer with us.

While there have been books featuring the photographer’s work, never before had there been a documentary about him until Laura Bialis came along. It took some convincing as is the usual case but the final product does a good job at telling his story. If anything, the dramatic recreations do draw us away from the film a little bit. I can understand why they are in the film but this could be an even better film without their presence.

Bialis isn’t trying to lionize the photographer as a hero but she doesn’t need to do that anyway. The simple fact of making this film allows Bialis to gift Vishniac’s work to a new generation at a time when younger people are not learning as much about the Holocaust. It’s not an understatement to say that films like this are more important than ever. I wish this were not the case but it’s true. Thanks to this film, books and other museum exhibits in existence, Roman Vishniac’s legacy will live on for years to come.

DIRECTOR: Laura Bialis
SCREENWRITER: Sophie Sartain
FEATURING: Mara Vishniac Kohn, Ethan Vishniac, David Shneer, John Edwin Mason, Kerry Wallach, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Lisa Wahler, Laura Hobson-Faure, Ephraim Vishniac, Norman Barker, Hasia Diner, Michael Steinfeld
CAST: Phillip Mogilnitsky, Lily Vaknin, Lucas Meisel, July Hodara

Abramorama will release Vishniac in theaters on January 19, 2024. Grade: 3.5/5

Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Buttondown.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.