Roman Vishniac Rediscovered: Breathtaking Exhibit at Contemporary Jewish Museum

Currently on display through May 29, Contemporary Jewish Museum's photo exhibition Roman Vishniac Rediscovered is a breathtaking journey back to Europe, immediately before and immediately after the Holocaust.

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) was a Russian Jew who took hundreds of photographs of Jewish communities in Europe during the years leading up to World War II. Emigrating to New York City in 1940, he became an accomplished portrait photographer. Portraits on display at CJM include scientist Albert Einstein and Yiddish stage star Molly Picon.

In 1947 Vishniac returned to Europe and documented the struggles of survivors. 

One might wonder how many of the photo subjects made it through the war years alive. Looking at haunting images of an older couple carrying their groceries home in pre-war Poland, or at a photo of children playing in the street, with Nazi flags clearly visible in the background, one can only surmise that they weren't long for this world. 

Photos taken post-war include images of a woman walking her dog amidst the rubble of destroyed buildings in Berlin and shots of survivors in displacement camps These images illustrate the magnitude of the devastation which Europeans — Jews and non-Jews alike — endured as a result of the rise of the Nazis. 

Some of the images are chilling: Vishniac photographed his own daughter standing in front of a Hitler campaign poster when Hitler was running for German Chancellor in 1933 — that photo now hangs on the wall at CJM. Next to it hangs the actual poster.

Attendees will hear the words of one of Vishniac's subjects. David Eckstein, born in Europe in 1930 and photographed by Vishniac in 1938, was one of the lucky ones. Eckstein now lives in the U.S. Next to his photo is a small video monitor with which visitors can hear him share his story via earphones.

The exhibition includes some of Vishniac's photos from Berlin, circa 1929, when the city was a glittering metropolis, a haven for artists, filmmakers, writers, and the era's LGBT community. 

As one museum patron noted to her friend, it can happen here. The rise of Donald Trump, and the passage of a sweeping anti-LGBT bill in North Carolina serves as a harsh reminder that what we enjoy in the Bay Area is not infallible.

Roman Vishniac: Rediscovered illustrates what we have to lose. It can happen anywhere.

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