A native of the Latvian city of Riga, Joseph Schneider narrowly escaped the Nazis and joined the Red Army in 1944, serving for the next seven years. He then dedicated himself to sharpshooting (he reportedly set a world record in 1954), photography, and clandestine Zionist activism. Recently the Israel National Library acquired his extensive collection of photographs. Yaakov Schwartz writes:
Schneider spent four years in the gulag from 1957 through 1961 for the crimes of supporting Zionism and disseminating pro-Israel materials from his photography studio in [then-Soviet] Riga. In truth, the studio was really a cover for his illicit Jewish nationalist activities.
However, his dexterity with a camera quickly became known among the inmates and was brought to the attention of a guard who had been tasked with documenting day-to-day life in the camp. In exchange for the last two frames of each film roll, Schneider taught the guard some photography basics. When Schneider was freed, he smuggled out a cache of photographic evidence, hidden in the false bottom of a picture frame. The archive was the likes of which the world has never seen. . . .
In addition to the gulag, Schneider documented his grassroots efforts to promote Zionism in Latvia. He also took photos of Jewish historical sites and instances of religious observance throughout the former Soviet Union during the Stalinist era. Then, such activity could mean summary execution. . . .
According to [his son] Uri, Schneider was one of the first Soviet Jews in the early 1950s to apply to emigrate to Israel. [He] filled out the paperwork knowing full well that the Jews who had naively done the same in 1948 thinking that Israel’s socialist government made it a natural Soviet ally had been imprisoned, and many of them killed. Schneider would repeat the process—and get denied—sixteen times. . . . Following the 1968 exit of fellow refusenik and activist Dov Schperling—whom Schneider had met and mentored at the Mordovian gulag—Schneider’s request to move to Israel was finally approved in 1969.
Schneider died in Israel in 2006.