.Ruin and Renewal

Even regular visitors to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive may not realize that right around the corner is another local museum treasure: The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.

Established in 2010 following the transfer of the Judah L. Magnes Museum to Cal Berkeley, the Magnes showcases “the vibrancy and diversity of Jewish life in the global diaspora and the American West through its holdings of art, objects, texts, and music,” according to official museum materials.

The original Magnes Museum, said Executive Director Hannah Weisman, was founded in 1962 in Berkeley by Seymour and Rebecca Camhi Fromer. One of the first Jewish museums in the United States, it focused on preserving Jewish materials from around the world through a post-Holocaust lens.

The collection continues to expand, and includes items from both everyday and religious life, including candlesticks, spice boxes, marriage contracts, textiles—even kosher serving dishes from the ocean liner Queen Mary. It also contains rare books, alongside paintings, prints and drawings, Weisman said.

One of the most significant donations to the Magnes occurred in 2018, when the daughter of photographer Roman Vishniac, Mara Vishniac Kohn, donated his archive of thousands of images and negatives, some of which had never been printed.

Vishniac (1897-1990) was a Russian-Jewish photographer whose professional life began as a documentarian. Born in St. Petersburg to a wealthy family, he lived in inter-war Berlin before emigrating to the United States in 1940. His many photos, literally tens of thousands of images of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, have become iconic, receiving international recognition for his depictions of shtetlach and Jewish ghettos. His images document the rise of Nazi power as he captured the growing, ominous signs of oppression and antisemitism.

His book A Vanished World, published in 1983, is one of the most detailed pictorial documentations of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe in the 1930s.

But during his long life, he documented much more, and the Magnes Collection has mounted an exhibition of photos taken on journeys to post-war Berlin in 1947 and post-war Jerusalem in 1967. Called “Cities and Wars: Roman Vishniac in Berlin and Jerusalem (1947/1967),” the exhibit includes 40 images never previously seen by the public—large black-and-white prints from negatives shot in Berlin—along with digital displays of color slides shot in Jerusalem.

“The Roman Vishniac Archive is incredibly wide-ranging,” Weisman said. “This exhibit gives people a view of his work that is not necessarily as well known.”

Magnes Curator Francesco Spagnolo, who has studied and admired Vishniac’s work for years, has taken great care in curating “Cities and Wars.”

“Berlin was his home from 1920 to 1939,” Spagnolo said. The exhibit also displays an enlargement of a 1947 Berlin map, along with a “few seconds” of Roberto Rossellini’s film Germany, Year Zero, shot in the same year in Berlin. “People wanted to see the collapse of the Third Reich,” he said.

The color slides of Jerusalem were perhaps taken as “field notes,” he suggested, part of a project that did not materialize.

The connection is, of course, that both cities are shown in the wake of war’s devastation: Berlin post-World War II and Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. Yet Vishniac himself “did not make the connection, as far as I know,” Spagnolo said. Some of the images make the relationship explicit: A horse draws a “taxicab” in bomb-blasted Berlin in one black-and-white photo; in a color slide from Jerusalem, a horse draws some kind of equipment along a damaged street.

Spagnolo grew up in post-war Milan, yet another city heavily impacted by war. Milan is a “city of hills,” he said, and after World War II, a new hill was built in his neighborhood, “but the urban texture was completely destroyed. Growing up in Europe in the ’60s, war continued to be very present,” he said.

The Berlin photographs express Vishniac’s ambiguity about what he was seeing, Spagnolo said, adding, “1947 Berlin is a Berlin without a wall. Life is struggling to re-emerge.” Weisman noted that one photograph shows a woman in a fur coat, carrying packages and smiling at the camera—in front of a church that had been bombed to ruins. 

Vishniac likely was mourning the city that he knew, but knew that the city had been destroyed and that “it was an essential destruction, which must be celebrated,” Spagnolo said.

The Jerusalem slides also show destruction and survival, but in a somewhat different context. “Prior to 1967, all sacred sites were not accessible to Jews,” Spagnolo said. “Showing bulldozers taking down the separation walls was symbolic … but once again, war was reconfiguring the urban landscape.”

All the exhibit photos are captioned and all sites are identified “if possible,” he said.

Spagnolo went on to note the range of Vishniac’s work, including that which is not included in “Cities and Wars.” “He was a science photographer and a pioneer in photomicroscopy,” he said. Vishniac also made significant scientific contributions to time-lapse photography. His portraits of people such as Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall are considered classic, and in his adopted American home he captured New York’s Chinatown and Harlem nightclubs.

Since the Magnes also supports research, and the gift of the Roman Vishniac Archive is one of the four largest gifts UC Berkeley has ever received, the museum will undoubtedly mount future exhibits showcasing other aspects of the photographer’s work. But “Cities and Wars” offers a present opportunity for those unfamiliar with his work to take it in for the first time.

It’s also an opportunity to become acquainted with other exhibits at the Magnes, Spagnolo said, “as there is no comparable collection not embedded in a research institution.” As soon as the current exhibit opened, Spagnolo said, students from multiple disciplines began viewing it, including those from the freshman seminar Things Fall Apart.

“War is in the news right now,” Weisman said, and the images are, indeed, eerily evocative of ones seen every day on news feeds. “Admission is free, and this is a show for everyone.”

‘Cities and Wars: Roman Vishniac in Berlin and Jerusalem (1947/1967),’ at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Life and Art, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Through Dec. 14. Open Tue-Wed, 11am to 4pm; Thur, 11am to 7pm; and beginning Oct. 8, Sun, 11am to 4 pm. Admission is free. magnes.berkeley.edu


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