1885 – 1989
Rachel Wischnitzer was a pioneer in the fields of Jewish art history and synagogue architecture. Her wide-ranging scholarship included books, articles, book reviews, and exhibition catalogs on ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish art.
Rachel Bernstein Wischnitzer was born in Minsk, Russia, on April 14, 1885, to Vladimir and Sophie (Halpern) Bernstein. Her family, while acculturated, celebrated Jewish holidays. They lived in comfortable circumstances. She had one younger brother. Her father was an insurance agent and supported her while she pursued her studies. She graduated from high school in Warsaw in 1902, and studied art at the University of Heidelberg in 1902–1903, and the University of Munich in 1910–1911. She spent 1903 to 1905 at the School of Architecture at the Brussels Royal Academy, then transferred to the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris and received an architect’s diploma in 1907, one of the first three women in Europe to attain that degree.
She married Mark Wischnitzer, a historian, in St. Petersburg in 1912. They had one child, Leonard, born in 1924. In 1920, the couple moved to London, where she was one of the first scholars to work on illuminated Hebrew manuscripts at the British Museum, London, and at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This work led to later publications in the field.
The Wischnitzers moved to Berlin in 1921. Friends helped them found Rimon [Hebrew] and Milgroim [Yiddish], companion journals that each included a literary and art section. Rachel Wischnitzer was art editor of the short-lived (1922–1924) but beautiful periodicals. While in Berlin, she was also the art and architecture editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica (Berlin) from 1928 to 1934 and served the Jewish Museum in various capacities, including a curatorial one, from 1928 to 1938. A major achievement during this period was the publication of her first book, Symbole und Gestalten der Jüdischen Kunst [Symbols and forms of Jewish art] (1935).
The Wischnitzer family left Nazi Germany in the spring of 1938 and resided in Paris temporarily, where Rachel Wischnitzer took a course with Comte Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, excavator of the Dura-Europos synagogue (built a.d. 244–245) in Syria, an educational experience that significantly influenced the rest of her career.
Upon moving to New York in 1940, she resumed her formal studies at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and completed her M.A. in 1944. At the same time, she was a research fellow at the American Academy for Jewish Research. Her master’s thesis was published in 1948 as The Messianic Theme in the Paintings of the Dura Synagogue.
Her study of the synagogue continued with her book Synagogue Architecture in the United States, published in 1955, the year her husband died. The following year, at age seventy-one, she established the fine arts department at the Stern College For Women in New York, and taught there until her retirement in 1968. The Architecture of the European Synagogue, her final book-length work, was published in 1964.
Yeshiva University awarded her an honorary doctorate of humane letters at its commencement in 1968, and the Journal of Jewish Art dedicated an issue to her in 1979. This special issue included an autobiography and a bibliography of Wischnitzer’s writings on both Jewish and general art, with a total of 344 entries. A later publication was an article on Picasso’s Guernica that appeared in 1985, the centenary of her birth. She died four years later, at age 104. Her son, Leonard James Winchester, an engineer, survived her.
Rachel Bernstein Wischnitzer was a seminal figure in the development of a new scholarly discipline. The breadth of her contributions to the history of Jewish art and architecture is exemplified in her lifelong dedication to her work as editor, author, educator, lecturer, curator, and scholar.
The Architecture of the European Synagogue (1964); From Dura to Rembrandt (1990); The Messianic Theme in the Paintings of the Dura Synagogue (1948); Symbole und Gestalten der Jüdischen Kunst [Symbols and forms of Jewish art] (1935); Synagogue Architecture in the United States (1955).
AJYB 91 (1991): 568–569; Artibus et Historiae 9, no. 17 (1988). Special issue in honor of Rachel Wischnitzer; Elliott, Roberta. “Centenarian Thrives on Her Synagogue Architecture Work.” Jewish Week (May 24, 1985): 22; EJ, s.v. “Wischnitzer, Mark”; Feil, Katharina. “A Scholar’s Life: Rachel Wischnitzer and the Development of Jewish Art Scholarship in the Twentieth Century.” D.H.L. thesis, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1994; Journal of Jewish Art 6 (1979); Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur [Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature] (1956–1981), s.v. “Vishnitser-Bernshteyn, Rahel”; Mayer, L.A. Bibliography of Jewish Art (1967); NYTimes, November 22, 1989, D18; UJE, s.v. “Wischnitzer-Bernstein, Rachel”; Who’s Who in World Jewry (1973), s.v. “Wischnitzer, Rachel”; Winchester, Leonard James. Telephone interviews with author, May 29 and June 2, 1997; Wischnitzer, Rachel. File. Public Relations Department, Yeshiva University Archives, NYC.