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Roman Vishniac's Berlin

basement bar

Roman Vishniac, basement bar in Charlottenburg, around 1930
© Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Mara Vishniac Kohn

Roman Vishniac (1897–1990) is well known for his photographs of life in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe on the eve of World War II. His photographs of Berlin, taken in the 1920s and 30s while he was living in the German capital, remained undiscovered until his death – people on the street, Berlin characters, friends, and family as well as Jewish institutions. The Jewish Museum Berlin shows these hitherto unknown shots of the master photographer for the first time in a special exhibition entitled "Roman Vishniac’s Berlin."

Roman Vishniac was born in Pavlosk near St. Petersburg in 1897 and grew up in Moscow. After completing his school certificate, he studied biology and medicine at Moscow University, subjects which he later combined with his life-long love of photography: As a pioneer of microphotography and the time-lapse technique, the vast majority of his photographic work recorded life under the microscope, winning him renown in the science world. Vishniac became known to a wider public with his photographs of life in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe on the eve of World War II. These photographs – as the title of his most famous work implies – are relics of a "Vanished World," taken during the course of extensive travel undertaken on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee between 1935 and 1938.

Only after his death in 1990 was a great photographic discovery made, in part at the end of film rolls full of plant and insect photography: Roman Vishniac’s Berlin photographs from the years 1920 to 1939. The exhibition "Roman Vishniac’s Berlin" shows around 90 of these photographs, some original prints, some enlargements done by Vishniac himself, and others prints made in the last 10 years from the remaining negatives.

After fleeing the Soviet Union for the German capital with his parents in 1920, Vishniac recorded life in Berlin with his camera. The photographs range from family snapshots through street scenes with newspaper vendors, beer carts, and chimney sweeps, or passers-by and impressions of Jewish life in Berlin to shots of the surrounding countryside. The photographs of groups and individuals stem primarily from the pre-Nazi era and reveal Vishniac’s benevolence towards the city and its inhabitants.

In contrast, the man behind the camera is discernibly distant in the later shots: striking images which reflect the political realities of the period in subtle ways. His photographs of Jewish life in the 1930s, taken at the request of Jewish aid organizations and reform schools belong to this category. Among them are pictures of the Jewish high school in the Grosse Hamburger Strasse, of the Teitel Children’s Home founded in 1928 for Russian-Jewish children of academics in the Münchener Strasse, of the Aid Association for Jews in Germany, and the Gut Winkel Agricultural Training Camp southeast of Berlin, which the department store magnate and publisher Salman Schocken placed at the disposal of the Zionist pioneers. These photographs show children in their lessons, young people who have prepared themselves for a new life in Palestine, and imploring older people – images which reflect the changing times faced by Jews in Germany.


4 November 2005 – 5 February 2006


Libeskind Building, Libeskind gallery on the ground floor


There is no extra charge for this exhibition

Roman Vishniac left Berlin for Paris in 1939. Shortly after the Second World War broke out, he was imprisoned in a camp near the French town of Gurs. It was purely down to the untiring efforts of his Latvian wife Luta, who had taken their two children Mara and Wolf to Sweden, that he was released in late fall of 1940. He was ultimately able to emigrate with his family to the USA via Lisbon.

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