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Wischnitzer, Rachel Bernstein (1885–1989) - Jewish Architectural History

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Rachel Bernstein Wischnitzer was born on April 14, 1885, in Minsk (White Russia) to Vladimir Grigorivitch Berstein, a lumber merchant (mother unlisted). She attended the University of Heidelberg, then graduated in 1907 from the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris, as one of the first women to receive a degree in architecture. She then attended the University of Munich from 1909 to 1910 and upon graduation returned to Russia, where editors in St. Petersburg commissioned her to write about synagogue architecture for the Evrreiskaia Entsiklopediia . There she met Mark Wischnitzer, the encyclopedia’s editor for European Jewish history, and they were married in 1912. They moved to Berlin in the 1920s and from 1922 to 1924 co-edited the Hebrew and Yiddish periodical Rimon .

In 1933 Rachel Wischnitzer began a pioneering project which would establish a photo archive of all the illuminated Hebrew manuscripts in the Berlin Staatsund Universitatsbibliothek. Because of the approaching Holocaust, she found one day that she was not allowed to enter the library, and the project had to be abandoned, although the results of her research were published in scholarly Jewish periodicals. She also wrote Symbole and Gestalten der Judischen Kunst in 1935, which studied the significance of Jewish symbols used in synagogue floor mosaics and wall paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and ceremonial objects. Wischnitzer also assisted directors and curators of the Berlin Jewish Museum from 1936 until it was closed in 1938. Wischnitzer and her only child, Leonard, fled first to Paris, then to New York in 1940. She received a master’s degree from New York University in 1944. She returned to her writing career with Synagogue Architecture in the United States in 1955. That same year Wischnitzer was appointed lecturer in Jewish Art at Stern College of Yeshiva University in New York. In 1964 she published The Architecture of the European Synagogue . She retired from Stern College in 1968, at the age of eighty-three, and was awarded a doctorate “honoris causa.” She continued to write, and when 100 years old published new insights into Picasso’s painting of Guernica. Rachel Wischnitzer died in 1989.

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