Travel, Refuge, and Internment in France: Paris, Nice, and Marseille, ca. 1939

From April to September 1939, Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer based in France while his family struggled to secure exit visas to the U.S. (his children had been sent to safety in Sweden). In the interwar years, France had welcomed Jews from across Europe. By 1939, as Jews fleeing Nazi rule brought the Jewish population in France to over 300,000, an increasingly conservative and nationalist government sought to limit immigration. Detention camps were established in southern France.

During this time, Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor (ORT) to photograph and film an ORT vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille. Vishniac’s parents had relocated to Nice in 1939, and while visiting them, he took playful, spontaneous photographs of Riviera beach life, a stark contrast to the intense and machine-focused ORT images that were to be his final photographic assignment for the JDC until his return to Europe in 1947.

In late 1939, after entrusting a large selection of his negatives to his friend Walter Bierer in Paris, Vishniac was arrested and imprisoned at the Camp du Ruchard internment camp. Held for a month, he wrote desperate letters to family, friends, and the staff of the JDC, describing the dismal conditions and pleading for assistance. Following his release, secured through the efforts of his wife, Vishniac waited in France while his family worked to obtain exit visas, with assistance from the JDC. Vishniac reunited with Luta, Wolf, and Mara in Lisbon, and the family sailed for America on the S.S. Siboney in December 1940, arriving in America on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Maya Benton, Curator

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