The Pale of Settlement, ca. 1855. Originally formed in 1791 by Russia’s Catherine II, the Pale of Settlement was a region designated for Jews. For political, economic, and religious reasons, very few Jews were allowed to live elsewhere. The area mostly falls within today’s Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and Moldova. At the end of the nineteenth century, close to 95 percent of the 5.3 million Jews in the Russian Empire lived in the Pale of Settlement. In early 1917, the Pale of Settlement was abolished, permitting Jews to live where they wished in the former Russian Empire. This region continued to be a center of Jewish communal life until World War II.
A photograph by Roman Vishniac (1897–1990), ca. 1935–1938. This and similar photographs taken by Vishniac are among the few visual testimonies to the life of Jews in eastern Europe during this period. The vast majority of the millions of Jews who lived in eastern Europe perished during the Holocaust.
A housewife, ca. 1935–1938. Vishniac’s images, while profound and moving, offer only a limited portrayal of the Jewish population in pre-World War II Europe. They helped to shape images of eastern European Jews as poor and traditional.
Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stenciled flowers above her head, Warsaw, ca. 1935–1938. One of Vishniac’s best-known photographs, this image was printed on charity tins and circulated throughout France to collect donations. Some of Vishniac’s famous images were staged to evoke sympathy.
Jewish schoolchildren, ca. 1935–1938.Vishniac took this photograph during a visit to a Jewish education center in Mukačevo in southwest Ukraine. Mukačevo, like many other towns in the former Pale of Settlement, had a large Jewish population; in many of these towns, Jews constituted the majority.