Jewish Life in Eastern Europe, ca. 1935-38

In 1935, Roman Vishniac was hired by the European headquarters of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—the world’s largest Jewish relief organization—to document impoverished Jewish communities in eastern Europe. Faced with rising unemployment, widespread poverty, antisemitic boycotts, and the tightening of immigration restrictions throughout the 1930s, the JDC needed to establish new machinery for administering relief and new avenues of fundraising to support it. Photographic images offered limitless, affordable reproducibility, and could be used in slide lectures, brochures, appeals, and annual reports throughout America and western Europe. After seeing Vishniac’s work on German Jewish relief organizations, the JDC hired him to undertake dozens of trips to eastern Europe. Over the following four years, his photographs played a crucial role in communicating the JDC’s message, and they would ultimately become the last extensive photographic record by a single photographer of Jewish communities that had existed for centuries.

The majority of Vishniac’s published photographs of eastern Europe depict privation: children and families suffering under the crippling effects of war, dislocation, boycotts, and antisemitism. Many others illustrate the philanthropic activities of the JDC such as children’s camps, free loan societies, soup kitchens, schools, and health organizations. And while Vishniac is often associated with images of rural villages and small towns, or shtetlach, most of his photographs record urban poverty in major cities like Warsaw, Krakow, and Lodz. Vishniac’s work for the JDC echoes the contemporaneous projects of American photographers like Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans. In the same years that the Farm Security Administration sent photographers to the American South and West to document those affected by drought, depression, and migration, Vishniac was sent east by the JDC. Today, Vishniac’s work stands alongside the best social-documentary photographers of his era. His unpublished work imparts a much more complex and nuanced perspective on eastern European Jewish life, and reveals a much more versatile—and modern—artist.

Maya Benton, Curator



In 1938, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) commissioned Vishniac to make films of the remote Carpathian Jewish villages and Galician towns he had been documenting for the relief organization in still photographs since 1935. Although the films were lost during the upheavals of the war, outtakes recently resurfaced, documenting the rural and observant Jewish farming communities that had been isolated for hundreds of years.


Digitized from 16mm original footage; running time: 17:30 [2:53 excerpt presented here]
International Center of Photography
Courtesy Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina, Roman Vishniac Science Film Collection.

← Back to all Exhibition Sections