JDC at the Movies

Documentaries showcase JDC’s role in history

In recent years, especially as the JDC Archives has digitized some of its most significant historical films, documentary filmmakers have increasingly conducted research for their projects across the JDC Archives photograph, film, and text collections. Two recent major productions have incorporated JDC’s role in historical events into their narratives and include visual material from the JDC Archives collections.

The latest documentary from famed director Ken Burns, The U.S. and the Holocaust, aired on PBS in September, and includes seven photographs that highlight JDC’s critical role over the entire course of the Holocaust era, from providing assistance to German Jews fleeing to the West in the 1930s to postwar life-sustaining activity in the Displaced Persons camps. The film narrative makes several references to the work of JDC during this period.

German Jewish refugees aboard the ship that will take them to America. Bremerhaven, 1938. JDC Archives

The documentary prominently featured the work of the U.S. War Refugee Board, a body largely created by JDC. (See our topic guide “JDC and the U.S. War Refugee Board.”) Among the scholarly experts who appeared in the film was Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who lectured on the War Refugee Board in a JDC Archives public program in 2018.

Among the photos included in the documentary is the image below, from the sailing of the SS Mouzinho in June 1941. JDC worked with HICEM and the American Friends Service Committee to transport unaccompanied Jewish children, from Lisbon to the United States. The JDC Archives holds dozens of photos of this event as well as a historical film that has been of great interest. (See the October 2020 blog post “Found on Film.”)

Young French refugee with American and Portuguese flags in his pocket stands in front of the SS Mouzinho, which sailed from Lisbon to New York on June 10, 1941. JDC Archives

October 27, 2022, saw the premiere of Reckonings, a new documentary film by Roberta Grossman produced in recognition of the seventieth anniversary of the 1952 Luxembourg talks that led to the agreement on Holocaust reparations and the creation of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). A previous film by Grossman, Who Will Write Our History? (2018), about Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes archive compiled in the Warsaw Ghetto, was recognized as a finalist for the 2017 JDC Archives Documentary Film Grant.

Reckonings includes historical footage from two JDC Archives films: Programs for World War II Survivors (1946-1948), and Post-World War II Germany, Austria, and Poland (1947). The first of these includes scenes from the Displaced Persons (DP) camps and children’s homes as well as footage of the second JDC country directors’ conference in 1948. The second was taken by Moses (Moe) Leavitt, Executive Vice Chairman of JDC from 1947 to 1965. Several of Leavitt’s “home movies,” taken during his travels for JDC, have been recently digitized by the JDC Archives. When Leavitt shot the footage in this film, he was touring facilities for Holocaust survivors in Europe. Scenes include German DP camps, a Lag B’Omer celebration for camp children, and Allied cargo ships with relief supplies being unloaded in Bremerhaven, Germany. Although silent, it is notable that Leavitt’s films are in color.

JDC Executive Vice President Moses Leavitt, in a still image taken from film footage of the second JDC country directors’ conference, 1947. JDC Archives

As it happens, Leavitt served as chief negotiator in the meetings with the West German government to secure compensation for the victims of Nazi persecution. These negotiations are the focus of Grossman’s documentary, and Leavitt is featured prominently. Although not used in Reckonings, other digitized films by Leavitt in the JDC Archives collection include travel scenes from the Netherlands and Luxembourg filmed during Leavitt’s trips to attend the negotiations.

Still image from the 1947 film of post-World War II Germany, Austria, and Poland made by Moses Leavitt while he toured facilities for Holocaust survivors. JDC Archives

Since the creation of the German government’s reparations fund, JDC has received significant funding from the Claims Conference to provide support to Holocaust victims worldwide, a process that continues to this day. In addition, JDC staff acted as consultants to the Claims Conference, making recommendations for a myriad of projects, a relationship well documented in the JDC Archives.

The JDC Archives has a growing collection of digitized audiovisual materials—historic films, videos, and audio recordings—that is available to filmmakers and TV producers, to educators for classroom use, and for public programs. A list of digitized items in the JDC Archives Audiovisual Collection, including sample clips, is available on the JDC Archives website.