Berkeley Talks: Scholars of Roman Vishniac’s Photos of Jewish Life Before World War II

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a rabbi in the 1930s reads books at a table

In Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz’s study at Mukacevo, ca. 1937-8. (Photo by Roman Vishniac via The Magnes on Flickr)

Inside Berkeley Talks Episode 141, a panel of scholars discusses the work of Roman Vishniac, a renowned Russian-American photographer who has taken thousands of photos over seven decades and on three continents.

Although Vishniac’s genres were diverse, he is best known for the images he took of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac, 1977 (Photo by Andrew J. Skolnick)

“Why do his photographs of Jewish life in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, taken roughly between 1935 and 1938, now appear so large in Vishniac’s extensive corpus?” asked Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, at a UC Berkeley event in May.

“These photographs are distinguished by their epiphenomena, the life circumstances of their subjects, and the narratives that surrounded these images,” Efron continued. “Shortly after these photos were taken, most of the Jews they depict met a terrible fate during World War II. The few who survived the Holocaust had to start their lives over in radically different circumstances.

“As a result, these photographs came to be seen as a last glimpse of a murdered population and a destroyed way of life, referred to repeatedly, including in conjunction with Vishniac’s work, as a ‘disappeared world’”.

Also on the panel were moderator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor emeritus and professor emeritus of performance studies at New York University and chief curator of the Central Exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and Ben Schiff, professor emeritus of politics. at Oberlin College and Vishniac’s grandson, who spoke about Vishniac’s life, his love of nature and science, and his pioneering contributions to photomicroscopy.

a boy sitting at a table with two other students at the Jewish school in 1938

David Eckstein at age 7 with classmates at cheder (Jewish primary school) in Brod, (Carpathian Ruthenia/Czechoslovakia), ca. 1938. Eckstein survived the Holocaust and did an interview with the USC Shoah Foundation as an adult. (Photo by Roman Vishniac via The Magnes on Flickr)

“Roman was much more than a photographer,” Schiff said. “I think he saw himself as part of the tradition of the natural philosopher, a synthetic thinker along the lines of Alexander von Humboldt, perhaps, whose explorations, that is, Roman’s explorations, took place, not in the exotic locales that von Humboldt explored so much. as in the boundless expanses of the microworld.”

The panel discussion was part of Roman Vishniac. In Focus: 1922-2022, a two-day event in Berkeley that included an open house on May 1 at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and a one-day virtual symposium on May 2 that brought together scholars from around the world to discuss the history, context and content of Vishniac’s photographs.

The event, presented by The Magnes in collaboration with the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley, celebrated the reopening of The Magnes and the wealth of the Roman Vishniac Archive, which includes more than 30,000 images, audiovisual materials, correspondence and memorabilia valued across more than US $38.5 million. They were donated in 2018 by Vishniac’s daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn, who worked closely with The Magnes’ curatorial team to ensure that the unprecedented gift – the third largest in UC Berkeley history – would make it to The Magnes.

five people pose for a photo in a museum

On May 1, The Magnes celebrated the reopening of the museum and the Roman Vishniac Archive with an open house. From left: Aubrey Pomerance, director of archives at the Jewish Museum in Berlin; Naomi Schiff, granddaughter of Vishniac; Benjamin Schiff, grandson of Vishniac; John Efron, faculty director at The Magnes and Koret Professor of Jewish History at Berkeley; and Francesco Spagnolo, curator of The Magnes. (Photo by Catharyn Hayne / KLC Photos via The Magnes on Flickr)

“In her later years, she became more and more concerned about what was happening with the archive and we began to discuss with The Magnes Collection and curator Francesco Spagnolo about the possibility of donating the materials here,” said Schiff. “[Mara] was so relieved and overjoyed when, at the end of October 2018, a climate-controlled truck was loaded in New York and the materials were safely shipped here. Mara passed away about six weeks later, her work to secure the future of her father’s work was successfully completed.”

In February, The Magnes received a $1 million gift, which will be used, along with large donations from other foundations and donors, to digitize and catalog the archive.

“I am overjoyed!” said John Efron, faculty director at The Magnes and Koret Professor of Jewish History at Berkeley, in a press release from The Magnes. “This remarkably generous donation secures the future of the Roman Vishniac Archive and further cements The Magnes and UC Berkeley as important resources in the world of Jewish Studies scholarship and teaching. We are deeply grateful.”

Watch the panel discussion on Roman Vishniac and his work, featured in this Berkeley Talks episode.

Watch the two additional talks from the symposium, as well as other videos related to the Roman Vishniac Archive, on The Magnes YouTube page.

Learn more about the Roman Vishniac Archive at The Magnes.

See more photos of Vishniac on The Magnes Flickr page.

Also read a Berkeley News 2018 story about the archive: ‘No longer disappeared: photography giant Roman Vishniac finds a home at The Magnes.’

Listen to other episodes of Berkeley Talks:

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