July 15, 2009

A Wide Angle On Compassion

From the New York Jewish Week
June 26, 2009
by William Meyers

The Fortress is a nondescript warehouse building in Long Island City, Queens, where corporations, institutions and individuals store irreplaceable documents and works of art. There is no signage on the building. Inside, past the security check and down a series of spotless corridors, you arrive at the climate-controlled room where for the last five years Peter Goldberg has been digitizing the photographic archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Joint has almost 100,000 photographs in its collection, of which 24,126 had been scanned by the day I visited the Fortress early in June. With his present technology Goldberg can scan 7,000 pictures a year, so there is plenty of work yet to be done.

Once a picture and its caption have been scanned, it is put back in its acrylic sleeve, returned to whichever of 3,000 lots it came from, and stored in a gray, acid-free cardboard box. The digital file of the image is saved on a hard drive and posted to the Joint’s server; it is then downloaded from the server by the Joint’s archivists in Manhattan for further processing. Slava Mitsel examines the image on his computer screen, categorizes it by date, country, subject, event and photographer, and lists it to a software program that is the core of the archive’s retrieval system. Institutions, moviemakers, writers from all over the world, as well as individuals researching their family histories request images from the Joint, and they are easily located and provided electronically. But the Joint is the primary user of its archive.

Ever since it came into being amidst the carnage and destruction of World War I, the Joint Distribution Committee has used photographs to document its projects. The organization has worked in over 70 countries where dozens of tongues are spoken, but the images provide a common language. They form a record of the crises the Joint has confronted, of the programs it has run to deal with the crises, and — most memorably — of the people involved, both caregivers and recipients.

The pictures of children can break your heart. There is Rifka Bachar, a 9-year-old photographed in Jerusalem in November 1923 [see photograph above]. The child has long black hair that hangs in two neat braids, and wears a simple dark dress with long sleeves. She sits on a chair that leaves her legs dangling, with her feet crossed at the ankles. There are high-laced shoes on her feet. Her arms are pressed to her sides, and she grips the seat of the chair, a sign of the tension she feels. Bachar is pretty, with regular features, and looks up at the camera with a somewhat skeptical cast on her face. From the caption we learn she lives with her mother and two sisters in one small room. A brother is in an orphanage. Her father was drafted by the Turks and died of tuberculosis. Her mother is sick and cannot work. The sisters are learning trades with the help of the Palestine Orphan Committee, but do not work yet. We are told, “Rifka is modest, well behaved, fond of learning, and quite an interesting child.”

Other pictures from pre-state Israel include one from 1921 labeled “A blind girl examines a wall map at the Jewish Blind Institute (Beth Chinuch Ivrim) in Jerusalem.” The caption informs us that the teachers, a man and a woman, are both blind. From the same year, “Elderly men learn to weave baskets and mats at a workshop founded by JDC” shows over a dozen men, all with white beards and most wearing tattered robes, in a courtyard weaving piles of reeds into baskets. Many of them pause to face the camera and we notice the assortment of headgear they have on: a newsboy cap, a bowler hat, some berets, a fez, an astrakhan pillbox, a few bowl-like caps. The varied chapeaux are probably markers for the different parts of the world from which they washed up in Jerusalem.

There are many pictures from Europe between the wars. In Poltava, Ukraine, “At a JDC-financed ‘Drop of Milk’ laboratory, women prepare milk for distribution to infants.” Five determined-looking women in white medical uniforms stand by a table covered with bottles of milk in the middle of a conspicuously clean room. A photograph from 1929 shows, “Two women at the old age home subsidized by Kiev’s Jewish Relief Society (KEBO).” Somewhat superfluously the caption tells us, “They have had a hard life, these two.” And, of course, there are many pictures from the havoc of World War II and the dislocations of its aftermath.

In the last few decades most of the photographs the Joint has collected have been in color, and the more recent ones were taken on digital cameras rather than film, but the early black-and-white images, some of them made on glass-plate negatives, seem to have greater resonance. In spite of the horrendous conditions they illustrate, the pictures themselves frequently possess great charm. They draw us into the lives and circumstances of these orphans and widows, the maimed and indigent, victims of history. The Joint has employed many exceptional photographers, most famously Roman Vishniac in the late 1930s, but the high quality of the work produced even by anonymous photographers is conspicuous.

The JDC archives are a valuable heritage of the Jewish people, and I am glad the original prints are secure in the Fortress in Queens. For the same reason, I am glad it is the Joint’s eventual intention to make all the digitized images available online.

William Meyers is a writer and photographer, whose photographs are in the collections of the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society. He writes a column on photography for the Wall Street Journal.

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