What Jewish Life Looked Like In Europe Before The Holocaust

Published January 17, 2015
Updated January 19, 2018
Jewish Life

The photographer himself, amid some of the people he was attempting to rescue from poverty. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Exploring photographer Roman Vishniac’s archives of Jewish life before the Holocaust is to contemplate just how quickly politics and propaganda can transform—or eviscerate—an entire culture.

In 1935, Vishniac began to photo-document impoverished Jewish communities in order to secure aid for them through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There are about 9,000 photo negatives in Vishniac’s archive, but only 350 of them were printed in the span of his lifetime.

Jewish School In Germany
Sharing school books at heder: 1935-38. Source: The New Yorker

Jewish Life Unseparated Shots
Many unseparated shots from the archive. Source: Art Blart

Berlin Zoo 1930s
Inside the Berlin zoo in the early 1930s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Emily Frankel and Mark Ryder
Dancers Emily Frankel and Mark Ryder, New York: early 1950s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Anhalter Bahnhof Station In Berlin
Inside the Anhalter Bahnhof, a railway station in Berlin in the early 1930s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Life For Jews In The 1930s
Shop woman washing the windows of Mandtler and Neumann Speditionen in Vienna in the 1930s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Jewish Life Applicant
Emigration applicant meeting with an agent from the Aid Society of German Jews: 1937-38. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Trip To The Beach In Nice
A day at the beach in Nice, France: 1939. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Berlin Movie Theater
German family leaving the movie theater, Berlin: early 1930s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Jewish Schoolchildren In The 1930s
A flurry of happy children’s faces, Mukacevo: 1935-1938. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Vintage Images Of Life Before The Holocaust
Warsaw Boy in front of kindling in a basement dwelling: 1935–38. Source: Art News

German Election Posters In 1933
Vishniac’s own daughter Mara in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that says, “The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights,” Berlin: 1933. Source: Art News

Jewish Life Rubble
Boy standing atop a giant pile of rubble, Berlin: 1947. Source: Art News

Building A School In The Netherlands
Young Zionists building a school and foundry while learning construction techniques, The Netherlands: 1939. Source: Art News

Jewish Life Motor Boy
Boys gathered in admiration of a motorcycle, Brandenburg: early 1930s. Source: Art News

Jewish Life Stroller Street
Berlin street photography; notice the swastika flag on the storefront: 1935-36. Source: Art Blart

Photographs Of Jews In Europe In The 1930s
David Eckstein, seven years old, and his elementary school classmates in heder: 1935-38. Source: Art Blart

Soup Kitchen
A worker in a Jewish soup kitchen: mid to late 1930s. Source: Art Blart

Jewish Life Berlin Dog Walk
A Berlin street scene: 1926. Source: Art Blart

Jewish Life Stoop
Enjoying some time outdoors: date unknown. Source: Wordpress

Jewish Life Bath Time
Bath time for siblings at home: date unknown. Source: Wordpress

Vishniac was a Russian-born Jew, who himself spent a number of weeks in a French internment camp, but was later released and moved to New York City with his family. After the war, he continued to photograph the less fortunate within Jewish communities.

Now, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and International Center for Photography have launched an online database for all of Vishniac’s photos to both highlight his exhaustive body of work and help identify his subjects in the hope that the photos can be placed into the hands of the families. Many of the photos in the archive are uncategorized and undated, and there are very few names listed – but a number of identifications have already been made.

Photos in this gallery highlight all of Vishniac’s work and remind us of the culture lost to the wills of the more powerful.

If you're interested in life in Europe during the interwar period, check out our other galleries on the Great Depression and tragic Holocaust photos.

Erin Kelly
An All That’s Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she’s designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.