Strassler Center event casts new light on iconic Vishniac photos

Roman Vishniac: “Jewish Schoolchildren, Mukacevo, ca. 1935-38” (Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography)

Sometime in 2012, the International Center of Photography in New York will unveil an exhibit of photographs by Roman Vishniac, a world famous photographer whose prolific published works became iconic images of Jewish shtetl life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. But the discovery of a vast trove of previously unpublished photographs has revealed more than his extraordinary artistic talent—it has exposed ambiguities and unsettled long-held assumptions about the meaning of Vishniac’s works.

The Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University will present a lecture by Maya Benton, titled “Picturing Vishniac: A Closer Reading, New Work, and Constructions of Jewish Identity” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in Tilton Hall, Higgins University Center, 950 Main St. The lecture is free and open to the public.

“In order to understand the Holocaust, it is essential to appreciate the world that was lost with their annihilation.  Vishniac’s photographs have long been thought to capture that world." ~ Mary Jane Rein, CHGS executive director

Maya Benton is a curator at the International Center of Photography in New York focusing on documentary photographs of Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe. She serves as collection manager for the estate of the celebrated Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac. The Vishniac archive is well known for preserving images of Eastern European Jewry in the years immediately before the Holocaust. Benton will present several images and discuss the range of Vishniac’s work and explore the questions raised by her study of the largely unknown collection.

The Strassler Center at Clark University deals with the life and culture of people who have been targeted for annihilation. The destruction of European Jewry is so complete that their life and culture is largely missing from academic study. Yet, studying the victims is critically important to a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, said Mary Jane Rein, executive director of the Strassler Center. Considerably more than half of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust lived in Eastern and Central Europe before the war.

“In order to understand the Holocaust, it is essential to appreciate the world that was lost with their annihilation,” Rein said. “Vishniac’s photographs have long been thought to capture that world but Benton shows that he manipulated his photographs in order to correspond to an idealized view of shtetl life and she illuminates the story behind his project.”

Benton holds a B.A. in Ancient Art and Archeology from Brown University, and master's degrees from Harvard University (Museum Education), the University of Florence (Conservation and Restoration of Art), and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London (M.A. German Art and Cultural Politics and M.Phil. in Modern Art history with an emphasis on photography).

This event is presented by the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in collaboration with the Clark University Jewish Studies program and the Worcester Jewish Community Center.  The event is supported by the David and Edie Chaifetz Fund. For more information, call 508-793-8897.

The mission of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies is to educate undergraduate and graduate students about genocide and the Holocaust; to host a lecture series, free of charge and open to the public, to use scholarship to address current problems stemming from the murderous past; and to participate in public discussion about a host of issues ranging from the significance of state-sponsored denial of the Armenian genocide and well-funded denial of the Holocaust to intervention in and prevention of genocidal situations today.

Click here to access “A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac,” New York Times feature by Alana Newhouse about Maya Benton’s experience with the Vishniac collection.

Since its founding in 1887, Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has a history of challenging convention. As an innovative liberal arts college and research university, Clark’s world-class faculty lead a community of creative thinkers and passionate doers and offer a range of expertise, particularly in the areas of psychology, geography, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. Clark’s students, faculty and alumni embody the Clark motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.

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