Cities and Wars: Roman Vishniac in Berlin and Jerusalem 1947/1967
2121 Allston Way | Berkeley , CA
Roman Vishniac (1897–1990), a Russian-Jewish modernist photographer, lived and worked in Berlin from 1920 to 1939. On the eve of the Second World War, he extensively documented Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. After fleeing Nazi Germany, he found safety in New York City and became a US citizen in 1946. The Roman Vishniac Archive, which The Magnes acquired in 2018, also includes thousands of photographs taken after World War II in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
Vishniac had been collaborating with New York’s Jewish Daily Forward—then the “world’s largest Jewish daily”—from Europe since 1938. In the summer of 1947, the newspaper sent him from the United States to France and Germany, to visit “various cities… to obtain photographs and stories of human and general interest,” and most notably, to photograph Jews living in displaced persons camps. The journey, sponsored by the American Joint Distribution Committee and the United Jewish Appeal, took him back to Berlin.
The haunting photographs of his former hometown devastated by the effect of the war show collapsed buildings and cathedrals, refugee camps, and civic parks turned into vegetable gardens. They also portray his old neighborhood, Charlottenburg, which had once housed many of the city’s Jewish residents; his home, now in ruins; and the timid resurgence of urban life in a city split across American, British, French, and Soviet-controlled sectors.
A few weeks after the Six-Day War in the summer of 1967, Roman Vishniac traveled to Israel. He met family, friends, and colleagues, and visited public institutions and natural sights. He also spent several days in Jerusalem, which had just fallen under Israeli control. There, he took color transparencies (slides), as visual eld notes for a never-realized future project to photographically document the still-emerging State of Israel in many of its already apparent contradictions.
Vishniac depicted the damage to buildings and the remaining fortifications of the siege of Mount Scopus; the former “no man’s land” between Israel and Jordan; the dire state of the area near the Western Wall in the Old City; and the rebuilding of the city across its contested borders. He also took a deep view of the conditions of the Arab residents in East Jerusalem, a perspective that is consistent with his ongoing focus on disenfranchised communities in Europe and the United States.
Cities and Wars follows Vishniac’s journeys to Berlin and Jerusalem, displaying large-format black & white photographic prints from negatives shot in Berlin, along with digital displays of color slides from Jerusalem. Both are cities that the photographer considered “home,” each in a very different and unique way: Berlin, a once fabled, and then lost, haven where he had begun his life as a documentary photographer; and Jerusalem, which catered to his deep connection with the Jewish experience. Most of the images included in the exhibition have never been seen in public before. Together they highlight the unique gaze of the photographer, along with a careful chronicling of the effects of war on urban life that remain all too familiar to the contemporary viewer.
~ Francesco Spagnolo
The Magnes Collection is currently processing the Roman Vishniac Archive. Materials from the archive are not yet available.
Undergraduate Curatorial Assistant:
Philopatear Iweda (UC Berkeley)
Graduate Curatorial Assistant:
Sofia Karliner (University of Bologna)
Digital image editing:
Undergraduate Research Apprentices:
Lucy Barabas Robson, Ricky Noel, Zoe Forest, Sophie Morris, and Jade Isaacs
The original negatives of the images of Berlin are part of the collections of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Their digitization and use in this exhibition are under copyright from the Roman Vishniac Archive of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley, gift of Mara Vishniac Kohn (2018.15).
Special thanks to Taube Philanthropies, the Libitzky Family Foundation