Roman Vishniac holding the cover image of his book, "A Vanished World," New York, 1982. (Photo/The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, gift of Mara Vishniac Kohn)
Roman Vishniac holding the cover image of his book, "A Vanished World," New York, 1982. (Photo/The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, gift of Mara Vishniac Kohn)

Magnes receives $1 million gift for Vishniac archive project

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley has received a $1 million gift from a donor who has chosen to remain anonymous, the museum announced Tuesday.

The money will be used to catalog and digitize the Magnes’ Roman Vishniac Archive, a collection of more than 30,000 items that belonged to the renowned Russian-born, Jewish photographer and biologist who died in 1990. His daughter, the late Mara Vishniac Kohn, donated his archive — including approximately 6,500 prints, 10,000 slides, 40 albums of negatives, 20 binders of contact sheets, 1,500 scientific prints and 400 audiovisual recordings — to the Magnes in 2018. The collection has been appraised at nearly $40 million, and the museum had solicited $1.725 million from funders to process and preserve it over five years.

“This remarkably generous gift assures the future of the Roman Vishniac Archive and further cements The Magnes and UC Berkeley as major resources in the world of Jewish Studies scholarship and teaching,” John Efron, the director of the Magnes, said in a press release.

In response to a question from J. about the donor’s interest in the Vishniac archive, a Magnes spokesperson said, “The donor is committed to the study and teaching of Jewish history and culture.”

These never before seen pictures of Israel by legendary photographer Roman Vishniac have arrived at the Magnes and UC Berkeley as part of a large archive of his work.
These 1967 photos of Israel by Roman Vishniac are part of The Magnes’ collection of his work.

Vishniac’s best-known photographs were of shtetl life in Poland, Ukraine and Czechoslovakia in the years prior to the Holocaust, images that were collected in a 1983 book titled “A Vanished World.” Vishniac also trained his lens on immigrants in 1940s New York City, Israelis during the early years of the state and the natural world. He was a trailblazer in photomicrography, the process of taking images through a microscope.

The Magnes, which is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, is currently showing some of his photographs in an exhibition that runs through May 11. It will share more — including those of Eastern European Jews in between the world wars and Israelis after the 1967 Six-Day War — during a two-day open house and symposium on May 1 and 2. The event, titled Roman Vishniac In Focus: 1922-2022, is free and open to the public. UC Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies and Taube Philanthropies are co-sponsors.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco staged an exhibit of Vishniac’s work in 2016. Art historian and curator Maya Benton told J. at the time that Vishniac should be recognized “not only as one of the greatest Jewish photographers, but one of the greatest photographers, Jewish or otherwise.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.