By 1948 fate dealt Chim a card that had "ace" written all over it. UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund), only recently formed, asked him to take photographs for a book depicting Europe's children in need. It was not a lucrative proposition, but a labor of love, for instead of paying the usual magazine rate of at least one hundred dollars a day, all UNICEF could muster was twenty-six dollars. The project would take twelve weeks, and Chim was to travel to Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy, and Greece. The purpose was to show the work being done by UNICEF, providing some of Europe's thirteen million children with the barest minimum of necessities: powdered milk, a bowl of soup each day, a pair of shoes, and vaccination against tuberculosis.Chim's heart had always gone out to children, and they reacted to him with complete acceptance. They seemed oblivious of him, but he noticed every little movement, every little pain, every little pleasure. There is no artifice, no bravura of lighting expertise in Chim's photographs of the children. They speak simply from his pictures, as if alive. This intellectual, so adept at analyzing the most complex political situations, so comfortable photographing heads of state, produced his greatest photographs to help children in need.
Some of the children were mentally disturbed, others were maimed, many were tubercular. They were hungry. They had no shoes. A number had prostituted themselves and had become infected with venereal disease. The lives of these children are not a pretty sight, but the viewer never recoils because Chim's heart was so tender, his compassion so great, and above all, his sense of truth so critical: he never depicted the children as hopeless. Although crippled, Chim's children are children. The one-legged boys love to chase a ball. The little girl whose corset supports her tubercular back gives us a shy smile. The blind boy who lost his arms and reads Braille with his nose desires knowledge. The girl with the tortured eyes, and the picture of her home a huge scrawl, questions the photographer, as he questions us.
During World War II, all over the European continent tens of thousands of mothers and fathers were carted off to concentration camps, or used as slave labor. Some were killed fighting for Germany. Others, were tortured and killed fighting against it. Still others were murdered in acts of retribution. Cities and homes disappeared in bombing raids. In the course of the last, desperate resistance to Allied forces, shells turned homes into hovels. As the ruling powers fell, corruption took over in the vacuum authoritarian power left behind. Cities stopped functioning. Sources of water and electricity were cut and remained in disrepair. Gasoline became a black market commodity, as did food. Schools remained closed. Each set of unsatisfactory social circumstances bred its own particular brand of evil. In Vienna, occupied by the four Allies, Chim photographed in an orphanage where fathers, Russian, French, English, and American, never came to visit. In Rome and Naples, children ran wild in the streets and ruins, thieving for food, pimping, selling cigarettes made from recycled butts. Church organizations set up day camps and orphanages. Funds were limited and conditions were poor.
But it was not all gloom. In the poorest sections of Naples, where there had been no bombing and fighting, family structures were left intact. In spite of extreme poverty, families took pride in their numerous offspring. The children played happily in the streets, naked or not, in the heat. For once Chim was not just telling a story, as was his usual goal as a photo-reporter, but instead was making a statement to drive home the universal condition of children at risk. Chim's Children, as these photographs came to be known, is a memorial to his gentle mother, to whom he was much attached, and to his father, who was an ideal for him: intelligent, enterprising, and optimistic.