In 1939 Clemens Kalischer was an 18-year-old Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who was subsisting in Paris, when he somehow scraped together enough francs to purchase a small but potent book — “Paris Vu Par” — containing vital images of the city by the ingenious Hungarian Jewish photographer André Kertész. Kalischer had the volume with him when the French government interned him for being a German national. And it remained one of his only worldly possessions as he struggled to survive through eight labor camps in France over the next year and a half. At times he was so depleted — at one point weighing just 80 pounds — that he would rip away a ragged page or two to lighten his load. But he always kept the book with him.
Kalischer endured, and through a series of miraculous events he reunited with his family and escaped to Morocco just as France was falling to the Nazi invaders. He landed in the United States, penniless, unschooled, weak, speaking no English. Like Kertész, whose book he still carried, Kalischer was a survivor: sharp-eyed, resourceful, alert to his surroundings, and deeply empathetic. His sensitivity soon helped him to earn, less than six years after picking up a camera for the first time, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Today, at age 92, Kalischer still puts in long hours at his tiny gallery in his adopted hometown of Stockbridge, Mass. But the digital revolution has transformed his lifelong profession, and he has finally put down his camera.
“The business seems to have dried up and I belong to another century,” he says. “I no longer remember how to work the buttons or print my pictures.” His archives of several hundred thousand photographs, spanning seven decades, remain entombed in file cabinets, waiting for a university or private collector to be their savior. Potential buyers don’t seem to stop by to browse through his pictures the way they used to do back in the 1970s or ‘80s.
“I’ve always trusted that when the time was right, the right thing would happen,” he says. “Even now I still trust in something that I don’t know what it is.”
Born in Lindau, Germany on March 30, 1921, Kalischer grew up in Nordhausen. a town in central Germany. His father Hans, a psychotherapist and artist, and mother Ella, a physiotherapist, raised the boy and his younger sister in a household imbued with liberal values and an appreciation for nature, art and fine European culture. In 1930 the family moved to Berlin, where Hans took a post working with disturbed and delinquent children — experience that gave him valuable insights into the rising fears and resentments among Germany’s seething lower-middle class, the Nazis’ primary recruiting bloc.
“Unlike a lot of German Jews,” Kalischer said, when Adolf Hitler rose to power on January 30, 1933, “my father knew disaster was coming and he insisted that we leave Germany as soon as possible.”