In early May, members of the Magnes community gathered for a multi-screen display of Roman Vishniac photographs and an all-day virtual symposium of panels, discussions, and conversation entitled “Roman Vishniac. In Focus, 1922–2022.”
Your support made this event possible. When we began planning the symposium last fall, we did not realize how important a moment we would find ourselves in now. The 100 years between 1922 and 2022 have shaped us. Now they challenge us. Nowhere is this more true than in Ukraine, a land whose Jews appear in vivid photographs from the interwar period that are a key part of The Magnes’s Roman Vishniac Archive.
Your continued support of The Magnes helps us remember and celebrate the past as well as understand that Ukraine in 2022 is not the same as Ukraine a hundred years ago. For American Jews whose parents, grandparents, or great grandparents escaped pogroms and civil war in the decades after World War I, there are always echoes from the past. Today’s violence and refugee crisis mirror stories of brutality and flights across borders that form the narrative of Jewish family histories, which when told and retold always end with “…and then we came to America.” Exhibitions at The Magnes, like that of Vishniac’s photographs, keep alive the knowledge and memory that those who stayed behind were slaughtered by Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators during the Holocaust, and that whatever remained of Jewish communal and cultural life was decimated by the Soviets in the postwar period.
Today, there are still Jews in Ukraine. However, they are Ukrainians sharing and suffering the same fate as their compatriots. The country has undoubtedly undergone dramatic change since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Nothing exemplifies the extent of that change more than the fact that one of those Ukrainian Jews is now the country’s president and its leader.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is a moment when we realize that no place is locked into its past forever. Today, being a Ukrainian patriot who is Jewish is not an oxymoron. That does not mean that antisemitism has disappeared from Ukrainian society. Casual slurs abound and there are streets and town squares named for Ukrainians whose antisemitism is well documented. Nonetheless, being Jewish is no longer a bar to being fully Ukrainian. A change has happened.
Often for good reason, our community is not aware of the changes that have occurred for the places and people who remained in Europe. The Holocaust looms over our history. It is a great divide reinforced by the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. For most Jews, these traumas of 20th century history are also tied to the rebirth of Israel in 1948. With your continued support, however, we will never lose touch with the past even as we celebrate and explore change.
Digital images of photographs taken by Roman Vishniac in Central and Eastern Europe before World War II and from Israel in the immediate wake of the 1967 Six Day War were shown at The Magnes event in early May. The Vishniac archive is a photographic record of who we were and who we have become. Looking at the photographs today is all the more poignant given this current moment of terrible carnage and change.
Stories of Jewish migration and change are at the heart of The Magnes. Our exhibitions are carefully curated to provide context and historical accuracy to these stories of Jews moving, changing, and achieving success in new homelands. Our programs succeed because your support has enabled us to highlight the diversity of Jewish experiences.
Our values and our understanding of the world are rooted in Jewish history. As we deepen the bonds of our community, we honor our remarkable collective experience of survival and new beginnings. Join me in exploring and celebrating our roots by contributing your support to The Magnes.
With deepest gratitude,
John M. Efron
Esther and Jacques Reutlinger Director
The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life
Koret Professor of Jewish History
P.S. The generosity of donors such as you is critical to The Magnes’s continued success. Please make a gift today!