Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands, ca. 1938

As the plight of German Jews became increasingly dire throughout the 1930s and many Jewish families attempted to send their children to safety in neutral countries, many young German Jews, including Vishniac’s children Wolf and Mara, joined a large number of Zionist organizations. With the British government maintaining strict immigration quotas, hundreds of young German Jews planning to go to Palestine and waiting to obtain visas were sent to the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, an agrarian youth training complex, or hachschara, in the Netherlands. Established in 1934 by the Dutch Foundation for Jewish Labor on land donated in part by the Dutch government, the Werkdorp taught young, urban Jews farming, animal husbandry, construction, and other unfamiliar skills they would need in Palestine and other countries.

In ca. 1938, Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to document the Werkdorp’s activities. Vishniac photographed the capable young men and women as idealized, heroic Zionist pioneers, lifting heavy stones, constructing scaffolding, and tugging on rope. The images bear a striking resemblance to heavily circulated halutz (Zionist pioneer) photography made in Palestine in the 1930s, and demonstrate Vishniac’s versatility: here is an ambitious, accomplished series in a style that is radically different from his earlier work, and perfectly suited to his athletic, industrious subjects. Shot from a low vantage point, the Werkdorp images juxtapose clear skies and strong silhouettes to form vigorous, balanced compositions. Young, healthy bodies play off the clean, rhythmic geometry of the construction sites in a manner that is also reminiscent of the Russian Constructivist photographer Rodchenko, whose work would certainly have been familiar to Vishniac.
In March 1941, Nazi SS officers ordered the evacuation of the camp, and most of its inhabitants were sent to transit camps, including Westerbork. Out of 315 Werkdorp residents in May 1940, 175 were killed in concentration camps in the east
Maya Benton, Curator
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