Roman Vishniac Berlin, 1947
Roman Vishniac Jerusalem, 1967.

Cities and Wars: Roman Vishniac in Berlin and Jerusalem (1947/1967)

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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The remarkable exhibit at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley, features never-before-seen work by Roman Vishniac (1897-1990), the internationally acclaimed modernist Russian-Jewish photographer, first known for his esteemed 1983 book, “A Vanished World.”
Yet, his versatile talent reaches far beyond his poignant black-and-white photographs of Eastern European Jews on the eve of World War II to other subjects and formats, including portraits, street scenes of urban and rural communities, time-lapse photography, and color microphotography. Born in Russia to a wealthy Jewish family, and after studying zoology and biology, Vishniac moved to Berlin in the 1920s, where he lived until he immigrated to the United States at the start of World War II.
“Cities and Wars” consists of large-format black-and-white photographic prints from negatives shot in post-World War II Berlin as well as large digital displays of color slides from Jerusalem after the Arab-Israeli War (“Six-Day War”) of 1967. Vishniac visited the two cities after each had suffered the physical and psychological damage of battle. World War II had left Berlin a divided city in shambles, and the Six-Day War had damaged Jerusalem while thoroughly transforming it with new territory and vital access to East Jerusalem.
The Berlin photographs were taken at the behest of Jewish organizations to document the Displaced Persons Camps created to help World War II refugees. But Vishniac also went off his assignment to investigate his former hometown.
Curator Francesco Spagnolo told this writer, “The Berlin pictures construct a narrative that begins with home — home lost, found, and hoped for. Most of the Berlin pictures are of Vishniac’s old neighborhood of Charlottenburg, which was then under American control. The exhibit concludes with photos of his old apartment building. All were taken with a Rollei camera with a strong sense of composition and speak to his modernist style of photography.”
The large, brightly colored Kodachrome transparencies of Jerusalem were taken while Vishniac was there on a family trip and were never published. “The entirety of the Old City and the Jewish holy sites had not been accessible to Jews between 1948 and 1967 while under Jordanian control. The Western Wall is hardly recognizable. However, Vishniac’s gaze also stops on street life and how Israel reconstructed the city,” said curator Spagnolo.
The Roman Vishniac Archive, consisting of an estimated 30,000 items, including photo negatives, prints, documents, and other memorabilia, was donated to The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life by the photographer’s daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn in 2018. The collection is still being curated and digitized.
The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way. Berkeley, Calif. Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Closed Monday, Friday, Saturday, and major holidays. Admission is free.

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