Photo Collection Spans Decades and Continents

Online database provides access to a century of JDC activity

From World War I until the present, professional photographers and JDC staff helped fulfill JDC’s responsibility to communicate to the public the extent of the needs overseas and how entrusted funds were spent. As a result, more than 150,000 photographic images, many rich in ethnographic detail, provide a parallel visual history to JDC’s massive text archives, and literally put a face on individuals and (many now-vanished) communities reached by JDC’s life-saving work in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The JDC Archives Photo Collection holds these images, 78,000 of which have been digitized, as individual prints, albums, scrapbooks, slides (also lantern slides) and negatives (also glass plate negatives). The collection covers JDC’s worldwide relief and rescue and absorption in the Jewish State. The majority of the photos are in black and white, though from the 1960s onward the proportion of color photos steadily grows.

A Mission of Relief. The earliest photos found in the JDC Archives reflect JDC’s initial aim to assist the Jews of the Yishuv and those who were displaced by the ravages of World War I in Eastern Europe. (Top:) People waiting outside the Nathan Straus Soup Kitchen; Jerusalem, Palestine, 1921. (Bottom:) Jewish refugees traveling with their belongings; Galicia, October 1916.

Regular visitors to the JDC Archives website may be familiar with the photo galleries. These nearly 100 curated selections range from World War II-era images from Europe, Asia, and South America to galleries by topic, photographer, and location. Among the notable photographers whose work is included in the photo collection are John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, Ed Serotta, and Al Taylor.

Together, these photo galleries provide compelling highlights of JDC’s broad holdings. To search for other subjects or a more comprehensive range of images, however, the JDC Archives online database is the place to go. Here, users can search by decade, location, subject/keyword, or any combination of these. Searches may employ Boolean logic terms (AND, OR, NOT), for example, “children OR orphans” for results that include either of those search terms, or “children AND sports” for results that include both of those terms. Links to the Photo Search Help and Video Tutorial provide guidance in conducting searches and viewing results.

Screenshot of the Photo Collection search template on the Advanced Search page of the JDC Archives online database. Links to the Photo Search Help and Video Tutorial (boxed in red) are available in the side menu.

The ongoing digitization of the photo collection was interrupted by Covid in 2020. When it was possible to resume work at the beginning of 2021, the first group to be digitized was a set of photos from post-Communist Eastern Europe by photographer Roy Mittelman. The photos, from Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania in 1994 and Estonia and Latvia in 1996, highlight JDC’s programs of renewal and assistance, including newly established Jewish education programs in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Riga, Latvia; and programs for elderly Jews in Romania and Bulgaria. Database records for these photos have been created and are available online.

An Ongoing Effort. The JDC Archives continues to digitize its photo collection and make more images available online. These pairs of photos, two of which were newly digitized in 2021, emphasize the continuity of JDC’s mission across the decades. (Top row:) JDC-supported educational programs in Riga, Latvia: (left) boys in a metalwork shop class at the Jewish Trade School, c.1925; (right) Jewish students wave in a hallway in the Simon Dubnov Riga Jewish Secondary School, photo: Roy Mittelman, 1996. (Bottom row:) JDC-supported food programs in Sofia, Bulgaria: (left) girls at a children’s feeding center, c.1947; (right) a nurse hands a food delivery to a homebound elderly Jewish man, photo: Roy Mittelman, 1994.

Recognized for both historical and artistic merit, photographs from the JDC Archives are regularly included in museum exhibits. Scholars, authors, filmmakers, and journalists make use of them in their work as well. Many people researching their family history also use our photo database and help to identify individuals in the photographs.

Explore the JDC Archives Photograph Collection.