2: Photoplate, Roman Vishniac’s “Students discussing the Chumash in cheder,” ca. 1938.

2: Photoplate, Roman Vishniac’s “Students discussing the Chumash in cheder,” ca. 1938.

From 1935 to 1938, funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Russian-born American-Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) undertook a documentary expedition in Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. The purpose was to capture Jewish life in the shtetlekh and cities there. The pictures are now a precious resource for glimpsing this Ashkenazic civilization on the brink of its destruction at the hands of the Nazis. Vishniac took the photograph seen in this artifact in the town of Brod, now part of the Czech Republic. The image was later chemically engraved onto a metal photographic plate, which was then affixed to a wooden block. This antique object would have been used to print the well-loved image onto the pages of books and newspapers.

Suggested activity: Dispatch your students on a photographic expedition of their own. Vishniac endeavored to not only portray people and their activities, but also to somehow capture the soul of his subjects and the interesting circumstances of their lives. Have your students do the same in their school—whether in a classroom, the playground, the hallways, etc. How can they capture the process of learning and the spirit of their environment? Project or share their images, and have the student-photographers present briefly—what was each photographer’s original idea, and how did it change as her “expedition” was underway?

Source: Photoplate: Archive of the Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA (photographed by Michael Yashinsky, 2016). Original photograph: Roman Vishniac, [Students discussing the Chumash in cheder (Jewish elementary school), Brod], ca. 1938 © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.