From the Archives

Russian Children's Art

Russian Children's Art Click to enlarge.
Illarion G, pen and marker on paper (Moscow, c. 1990's).

Exactly half a century after its exile from the Soviet Union in 1938 with the liquidation of Agro-Joint, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) once again set foot on Soviet soil in 1989, amid the prevailing atmosphere of glasnost. Though a devoted few had risked everything to sustain a thread of Jewish life, the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 revealed a Jewish cultural wasteland imprinted by 70 years of repression. JDC went to work immediately, revitalizing Jewish communal infrastructures and strengthening Jewish identity with a range of Jewish cultural activities. To that end, JDC trained educators, religious leaders, and communal professionals, and also built Judaic libraries, imported Russian-language Jewish books and materials, and supported Jewish schools across the region.

A physical manifestation of this cultural resurgence can be glimpsed in five colorful drawings of the Jewish holidays, created in the early 1990’s, by ten-year-olds attending the Moscow Jewish Art School. JDC sponsored the Jewish Art School, which opened in September 1990 with 100 students between the ages of 7-14. Its focus allowed Jewish children the opportunity to develop their talents in a Jewish atmosphere. These children were part of the first post-glasnost generation to receive a Jewish education in the former Soviet Union (FSU), and this school afforded them the chance to explore their roots creatively in the classroom.

The opportunity to use their artistic gifts in a Jewish environment illustrates the new spotlight placed on Jewish religion and culture. Pairing an arts education with Jewish culture enabled children to embrace their background in personal, unique ways. This experiential education strengthened Jewish identity and overall connection to the community.

One drawing by Illarion G. represents the Jewish New Year. It features a large fish resting on a platter, surrounded by a tapestry of blossoming flowers and whirling garlands. Large Hebrew letters proclaim “Shana Tova” or “Happy New Year”. Holiday symbols can be spotted amongst the blooming background such as the pomegranate which embodies the hope that everyone can approach the new year with abundant merit as well as apples and honey, traditionally eaten to usher in a sweet new year. The breadth of symbolism relating to the holiday demonstrates an understanding of Jewish symbols and customs. Additionally, from the intricate scales of the fish to the immensely detailed floral background, the work exhibits intense precision and attention to detail, evidence of the effort Ilarion applied to his masterpiece.

This same aptitude can be glimpsed in a watercolor by Roman B., in which urns of oil flank a menorah in a temple framed with columns lit by fire. A crowd of ornately dressed men enrobed in cloaks and holding scepters watch the lights flicker. The piece, which appears to be a scene from the story of Chanukah, is full of bright, vibrant colors. The overall workmanship, with its focus on shade, shadow, and perspective illustrates concentration and care, indicating that the art was executed with great pride.

These works of art stand as a testament to the integral educational and arts programs JDC helped to support in the FSU. They symbolize the sentiment that it is never too early or too late to connect with one’s heritage. JDC continues to offer guidance and expertise in rebuilding needed services and infrastructure which help Soviet Jews explore their roots and build community.

Russian Children's Art
Roman B., watercolor on paper (Moscow, c. 1990's).

Rescue through Emigration in the Nazi Era

A page from the passenger list of the SS Isla de Tenerife with the names of the Heid-Kahn family. Click to enlarge.
A page from the passenger list of the SS Isla de Tenerife with the names of the Heid-Kahn family.

Seventy-eight years have passed since my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and their children left Nazi Germany to find refuge in South America. Now I am working on documenting my family’s lives and struggles to show the generations to come how their ancestors overcame adversity with an unquestioned faith in G-d, with hard work and determination, and with the aid of Jewish organizations, such as JDC and HIAS. The records held at the JDC Archives are key to reconstructing a piece of my family history.

The Dorfzauns’ emigration is a story of coincidence, external factors, and planning. This branch of my family has deep roots in Bavaria, Germany. In 1919, a family member who contracted influenza was advised by his doctors to relocate to a country with a milder climate. And he chose to move to South America; to Bogota, Colombia. In 1934, the remaining family decided that it was time to flee from Nazi Germany. Their first choice was Palestine, where my grandfather traveled in 1935. However, the way that the British colonial police handled the theft of his wallet and documents, disappointed him and made him consider Colombia or Ecuador as a future home. On November 17, 1938, one week after the November Pogrom, the Dorfzauns left Germany, arriving in Colombia in January 1939. Of the five Dorfzaun siblings, one (my grandfather) settled in Colombia, another left to the U.S., and two went to Ecuador, on an agricultural visa. In Ecuador, they started a very successful Panama hat business, which exists until today, and is currently managed by a 4th generation Dorfzaun. Unfortunately, the Dorfzauns’ only sister was unable to leave Nazi Germany, and perished in the Holocaust.

Moritz and Babbette Dorfzaun with their children Kurt and Ruth in Munich, Germany, September 1938.

Moritz and Babbette Dorfzaun with their children Kurt and Ruth in Munich, Germany, September 1938. Courtesy of Alberto Dorfzaun.

On my mother's side, the Heid-Kahn family also started to make plans to leave Germany when Nazi persecution became unbearable. In 1935, the youngest of the five siblings, managed to get a work visa to Colombia. With this foothold, he was poised to earn a living and set aside the means to extract the rest of the family, especially after the horrors of Kristallnacht. After much effort, he met with the President of Colombia at the time, Eduardo Santos (the uncle of the current President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Juan Manuel Santos), and convinced him to grant visas to his relatives back in Nazi Germany. The six-member Heid-Kahn family was among the 216 refugees on the SS Isla de Tenerife that sailed from Barcelona, Spain, to Havana, Cuba, on October 30; a voyage organized and paid for by JDC. The ship arrived in Havana on December 7, 1941. On that day, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base of Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. and its allies severed diplomatic relations with the Axis countries, which meant that the ship had to leave Cuba. Through efforts made by the uncle living in Colombia, and with help from JDC, the Heid-Kahn family was permitted to disembark the ship, and was interned at the Tiscornia detention camp near Havana. After thirty days, they traveled on to Colombia with the help of JDC. Upon arrival, the Heid-Kahn family was coincidentally met by the Dorfzauns, who were there to help and receive the incoming immigrants. Almost ten years after this encounter, my parents married. They had five children and sixteen grandchildren. In a way, my parents crossed paths thanks to JDC.

I was greatly moved when I received documentation from the JDC Archives about the SS Isla de Tenerife sailing, and I found the names of my great-grandparents, grandparents, my mother, and her brother on the passenger list. This helped me clarify some of the blank spots in my family history. It is December 7, 2016, and I am concluding this article with tears in my eyes at the journeys that both branches of my family had to take, but also with much hope, as I see our three children healthy, successful, and happily married, and our four beautiful Jewish grandchildren. After all the tribulations, this is a happy story.

The Heid-Kahn family on the eve of their departure from Germany, October 1941. Photographer: Beno Oppenheimer.

The Heid-Kahn family on the eve of their departure from Germany, October 1941. Photographer: Beno Oppenheimer. Courtesy of Alberto Dorfzaun.

Alberto Dorfzaun is the President of the Quito Jewish Community in Ecuador. He is the founder of Banco Solidario (a bank dedicated solely to micro lending), and the director of K. Dorfzaun, the Dorfzaun family company that exports Panama hats. Alberto and Irene Rothschild-Dorfzaun have three children and four grandchildren.

Genealogical Resources in the Records of JDC’s Warsaw Office, 1939-1941

Excerpt from a list of Polish Jews who contacted their relatives in the U.S. to request emigration papers. Click to enlarge.
Excerpt from a list of Polish Jews who contacted their relatives in the U.S. to request emigration papers.

Genealogists, family historians, and Holocaust scholars mine various collections and many archives to search for information about Jews trapped in German-occupied Poland (the General Government). One collection in particular is at their fingertips, made available online by the JDC Archives. The records of JDC’s Warsaw Office in 1939-1941, with documents in Polish, Yiddish, German, Hebrew and English, offer a wealth of sources about Polish Jews during that time through the lens of JDC’s activities. They contain information of genealogical interest, and provide insight into the deteriorating situation of Jews in cities, towns, and villages across the General Government. Interestingly, this collection also includes correspondence with organizations outside of Poland, with foreign diplomatic missions, other JDC offices in Europe, and with businesses outside of Poland from which JDC purchased goods for needy Jews.

This collection includes many lists of Jews. You may come across lists of town residents, refugees, aid recipients, children, and lists of prospective emigrants and their relatives abroad. The type and amount of information on these lists vary. Apart from names, you may find names of family members, address, age, date of birth, birthplace, residence, nationality, occupation, types of aid received, and signature. Another noteworthy genealogical source consists of travel authorizations issued to community representatives to visit JDC offices in Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, and Radom. These documents provide names and the roles the representatives held in their communities. Then too, letters and postcards written by Jews to JDC offices include personal information, such as the authors’ names, address, occupation, and names of relatives. Selected correspondence mentions other details, such as prewar occupation, and wartime living conditions.

To search the text collection, go to, and follow the steps below.

Holocaust-Era Documents from Poland 2

Holocaust-Era Documents from Poland 1

Categories: Geneaology, Holocaust

Lighting the Way

Lighting the Way Click to enlarge.
Cigarette lighter, Germany, c. 1946. Silver. .5" x 1.5" x 2".

“While it was difficult to part with an item I so treasure, gifting it to the JDC Archives ensures it a rightful place in the story of our people and the Joint.”

- Sheila Spiro

Cigarette lighters, also called Zippos, were popular and abundant in the 1940’s. In fact, the company itself solely manufactured for the US military during World War II, with official lighters boasting unit crests and division insignia. As smoking was a cultural norm, lighters were used daily out of necessity, allotting ample time to display their faces and thus identify their owners. When lit, the badges were illuminated, signaling others with silent messages of contact. In the postwar period, cigarettes were considered a valuable commodity used as currency. One very special cigarette lighter was recently donated to the JDC Archives by Sheila Spiro, the stepdaughter of Joseph Fink, a former JDC staff member. She recounts that “Joe often said that he was grateful to the Joint for giving him the opportunity to help so many people.” Joe Fink was Director of AJDC Berlin in the late 1940’s; passionate about his work in the displaced persons camps and an ardent advocate for refugees. 

JDC partnered with other relief organizations to provide food, clothing, equipment, and emigration assistance to survivors in the DP camps, including Backnang, whose name is engraved on the back of the lighter. Backnang, situated near Stuttgart, was home to around 500 Jewish displaced persons in 1946. At Backnang, JDC helped establish vocational programs and schools, and even sent a Sefer Torah along with Yiddish newspapers to the inhabitants. A group of boys from the Backnang DP camp gave Joe the lighter as a token of thanks for helping them escape over the Italian mountains and join the Bricha movement, the organized, illegal emigration from Eastern Europe into the Allied-occupied zones and Palestine in the postwar period. The “boys” were most likely survivors originating from Eastern Europe, attested to in a letter Joe wrote to the Joint, dated November 25, 1945, in which he relays that most of the DP’s he worked with were from Radom, Poland.  

The motto on the front of the lighter reads העפל נעפלה, "ha'apel na'apela," which loosely translates to "Let's run the British blockade," a saying that embodies the determined spirit of Jewish refugees attempting to enter Palestine. Accompanying the words, the symbol on the façade appears to be an amalgamation of two organizations.  The two sheaves of wheat, which usually sandwich a sword, represent the emblem of the Palmach, the elite corps of the Haganah, the underground army of Jewish settlers, established in 1941. The yellow Jewish Star superimposed on three bands of blue and white, stands for the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, a military formation of the British Army composed of Jews from the Yishuv. It was formed in late 1944, and some members assisted survivors to emigrate illegally as part of Aliyah Bet. The essence of the Bricha movement is engraved on the lighter’s surface, signifying the makers’ journey. It’s clear that with this gift, Joe was symbolically linked to the formation of the State of Israel and the hopeful future of survivors after the war.

Though at first glance, a utilitarian object, this lighter not only illuminates an important era of Jewish history in the postwar period, but also represents the impact of JDC’s operations. While JDC’s aid can be viewed in numbers and statistics, this lighter reminds us that each JDC staff worker and aid recipient had a story and with each individual, the power to contribute to the survival and history of the Jewish people.  

To learn more about JDC’s activities in the DP camps, explore our topic guide on the subject. Do you have any artifacts with a JDC connection? Please contact us at We’d love to hear about your own pieces of history. 

Sheila Spiro lives in California. This story has been shared with her permission. 

The SS Serpa Pinto Lists: A Resource for Genealogy Research

A page from an SS Serpa Pinto passenger list of March 1944. Click to enlarge.
A page from an SS Serpa Pinto passenger list of March 1944.

The SS Serpa Pinto, a ship named after a Portuguese explorer and sailing under the Portuguese flag, became the leading bearer of refugees across the Atlantic during World War II.  JDC financed or shared in the financing of these trips by purchasing tickets and providing guarantees, which enabled thousands of refugees to reach safety. JDC passenger lists for the vessel’s journeys between 1941 and 1944 are available to peruse in their entirety in the Lists from the Nazi Period and its Aftermath, and to search by name in the JDC Archives Names Index. They provide a rich source for family historians and genealogists alike.

Portugal, a neutral country during World War II, was a destination for Jews trying to save their lives and a gateway to emigration out of Europe. Its capital, Lisbon, served as JDC wartime headquarters. There, JDC secured space on transatlantic vessels for refugees, cared for refugees in transit and during their stay in Portugal, and supported Jews without valid visas who were detained by the Portuguese government as illegal residents.

Departing primarily from Lisbon, the SS Serpa Pinto made stops in Barcelona, Madrid, and Vigo in Spain, as well as in Casablanca, Morocco. It carried up to 800 passengers per sailing. The ship’s destination was usually the United States, with other disembarkation points in Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Mexico. 

The indexed passenger lists contain valuable information about refugees scheduled for sailing on the Serpa Pinto with JDC assistance. In addition to names, some lists include personal data, such as age, marital status, and religion. Individual lists of refugees who headed to the U.S. indicate if a refugee had relatives there. Apart from the destination, lists of passengers who boarded the ship in Spain also provide dates when each refugee arrived in the country. It is important to distinguish these JDC lists which list only those helped by JDC from the official ship manifests.

Many lists contain information about a refugee’s country of birth, prior country of residence, and nationality. Some refugees were stateless Jews, who had held German and Austrian citizenships prior to Nazi rule. Others were from Western Europe (Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland), and Central and Eastern Europe (Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union). Still other refugees hailed from Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, and Yugoslavia), and from Northern Europe (England and Norway). A few fled from the Middle and Near East (Egypt, Iran, Palestine, and Turkey). A small number of refugees were citizens of the U.S., or Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. While some were born in one of those countries or acquired citizenship through their immediate kin, others managed to procure such documents in Europe, aware of the escape possibility that such passports offered.

A number of the indexed lists of SS Serpa Pinto passengers also provide information about the refugees’ professions. Many were unemployed. But several were scientists and academics. Others were medical personnel, social workers, lawyers, journalists, and teachers. They included business people and bankers, but also merchants and artisans. Artists and craftsmen were among them, too. Students comprised another group. Members of the military and diplomats fled as well. Names of a few rabbis also appear on the lists. 

One prominent passenger onboard the SS Serpa Pinto was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future leader of Chabad Lubavitch, who sailed together with his wife, Chaya Mushka, on June 12, 1941 from Lisbon. Lubavitch sources indicate that the Schneersons “at the last moment…received tickets on the sold-out Serpa Pinto.”

Two articles, one written by the JDC Archives Digitization Project Manager, and another penned by an indexing volunteer and genealogist, appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Dorot: The Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society. They contain additional information about the SS Serpa Pinto lists and, based on case studies, show how the lists can build personal and family stories.

Categories: Geneaology

JDC Archives Website as a Scholarly Resource in the Digital Age

Rachel Deblinger Click to enlarge.
Rachel Deblinger

Rachel Deblinger, digital humanist, discusses connection between JDC Archives, technology, and history.

As Director of the Digital Scholarship Commons at the Library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dr. Rachel Deblinger assists the campus community with the uses and methods of digital humanities. Her academic background as a historian of Jewish and Holocaust history adds a unique layer to her expertise as a digital humanist. Deblinger is no stranger to the JDC Archives. Her dissertation about American Jewish philanthropy and the shaping of Holocaust survivor narratives in post-World War II America was enriched by the range of previously untapped sources – pamphlets, letters, posters, advertisements, but also films and radio programs – many of which she found at JDC, the leading humanitarian organization assisting European Jewish Holocaust survivors at the time. For Deblinger, digital platforms, such as the holdings of the JDC Archives, also provide a visual extension of text-based scholarship. It is one thing to read analyses of audio and video sources and images, and another to actually hear and see these historical records in context.

Audio-visual files comprise a key source for Deblinger’s current research project, which examines how American Jewish communal organizations communicated the plight of Holocaust survivors for American Jews immediately after the war. Deblinger focuses on technologies that allowed organizations, like JDC, to disseminate information about the Holocaust as a way to garner support for survivors. This is where JDC-produced audio and visual material assumes center stage. When asked about her most exciting find, Deblinger immediately answered, “radio scripts!” Contemporary celebrities, such as the performer Eddie Cantor, became involved in JDC aid campaigns by reading ads and reports on the air while being heard by scores of their fans. Such recordings, Deblinger observed, made the American public aware of the Holocaust, introduced American Jews to Holocaust survivors, and contributed to preserving Holocaust memory. The participation of media personalities rendered special significance to the experiences of survivors, and generated audience interest. Deblinger’s research thus counters the myth of silence about the Holocaust in the United States in the immediate postwar years. JDC, through its investment in audio and visual media, was at the forefront of collecting and transmitting information about the Holocaust to Americans. Deblinger will both analyze such sources in written form and link them in a digital platform to complement the text.

Scholars tend to use traditional archival material and to present their projects in writing, but, as Deblinger’s work shows, reaching for a variety of media sources (print, radio, video, and performance) illuminates a wholly innovative way of writing and presenting history. And online tools allow scholars to link various sources to make connections between the past and the present. Digital humanities tools allow for navigating that history in non-linear ways.

The JDC Archives website and digitization efforts create opportunities for engaging with digital humanities methods,” Deblinger observed. The available data makes possible keyword searches, textual analysis, or data visualization – methods that can reveal patterns of continuity and change in the organization’s history and activities.

As an online platform, available to a broad range of audiences, “The JDC Archives presents archival information to the public in a fresh way, helps them to understand Jewish history, and shows what historians do,” Deblinger said. One example of a JDC Archives online tool that has far-reaching potential is curated exhibits. “They allow the public to engage with history through archival materials,” Deblinger explained. In fact, Deblinger will use the JDC Archives website in her upcoming course, “The Holocaust in the Digital World,” which she will teach at UC Santa Cruz in the Fall 2016 semester. Students will examine the website to learn about narrating history and building online exhibits, and thus creating memory of events. The JDC Archives website, with its database, digital exhibits, photo galleries, and informational content, serves as a significant resource, especially as scholarship and education increasingly connect with digital humanities. 

Categories: Holocaust

Cultivating Artists on Cyprus: The Rutenberg Seminar

Cultivating Artists on Cyprus: The Rutenberg Seminar Click to enlarge.
Student of the Rutenberg Seminar, album (Cyprus, c. 1948).

 “Cyprus is one stop on the road of suffering on the way to the land of Israel. It means thorny barbed wire fences, forced idleness, and degeneration. Even in this existence there was life. Friends from the camp in Cyprus tell about this life in this book.”

–Students of the Rutenberg Seminar, album (Cyprus, c. 1948). 

In August 1946, the British government initiated a policy of deporting Jews who tried to enter Palestine illegally, in violation of the immigration quotas for Jews set by the White Paper of 1939. These refugees, the majority of them Holocaust survivors, were caught in limbo, marooned on the British-controlled island of Cyprus and housed in internment camps. JDC offered its assistance. By the time the internment camps had closed in February 1949, JDC had spent approximately $2 million to assist some 55,000 refugees during their 30 months of internment. This support included supplementary food rations, clothing, medical care, vocational training programs, educational programs and religious materials. It also included art classes.

A record of these classes exists in the form of an album of linocuts and additional prints, currently housed in the JDC Archives. The images capture daily life in the camps, ranging from mundane activities such as relaxing and eating, to religious ceremonies such as marriage and the blessing of the new moon, each artist’s style coloring the scene at hand. Printed 120 times on a specially constructed printing press, the album is titled Begerush Kafrisin (Exile in Cyprus). The title recalls the collective Jewish memory of the Babylonian Exile centuries ago, which no doubt resonated with the Jewish refugees. This particular album was presented to JDC by the pupils of the Rutenberg Seminar, as a token of thanks.

The Rutenberg Seminar was founded in July 1947 by the Pinhas Rutenberg Educational Trust in conjunction with the Youth Department of the Zionist Executive. A “Youth Center” in Palestine was established, followed by the development of a similar institute in the refugee camps of Cyprus. On Cyprus, diverse courses were taught, including Hebrew, civics and psychology, as well as Bible, Jewish philosophy and history. The seminar established an art class, taught by  Naftali Bezem, a young graduate of the famed Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Palestine. Bezem went on to become a renowned artist himself, exhibiting internationally as a painter, muralist, and sculptor. In 1964, his paintings were featured in the Art Israel exhibit, organized by the Museum of Modern Art.

The linocuts appear an appropriate technique to portray the stark reality of life on Cyprus. Caught in an almost purgatory, the contrasting colors of the images capture the harsh terrain and bleak atmosphere of the camps. However, by choosing to illustrate their surroundings, detainees breathed life back into the camps. In the image below, barbed wire, usually brittle and tangled, seems to be unraveling before our eyes, wisps of smoke dancing with the waves, almost unfolding to let the weary travelers pass and enter the promised land. Thanks to the programming and aid from JDC, creativity and exploration arose in the camps, turning the monotony into a powerful source of inspiration. Art students’ simple and severe lines morphed into whimsical, other worldly scenes; the hopes and dreams for an imminent future in a new land.

Compare and contrast the prints to actual photographs of the detention camps, by viewing the JDC Archives Cyprus photo gallery.

Cultivating Artists on Cyprus: The Rutenberg Seminar
Student of the Rutenberg Seminar, album (Cyprus, c. 1948).
Categories: DP Camps

A Grandfather's JDC Legacy

Members of JDC's Overseas Unit No. 1. Click to enlarge.
Members of JDC's Overseas Unit No. 1. Rabbi Kowalsky is seated in the front row, second from the right. JDC's Director for Poland, Boris Bogen (seated, fourth from left), led the Unit.

"I need not tell you that everybody loves Kowalsky in Poland, and how can they help it? His love is not only an emotional love but a love of respect and admiration.

I am exceedingly pleased with his wonderful achievements, and appreciate very much the privilege of having Kowalsky connected with our work in Poland. At present he is director of the Brest-Litowsk district…

In addition to his being efficient and successful in his work, he is an example of devotion to the cause, and is an inspiration to all other boys (so we call the members of Unit #1)."

                    -    Letter from Boris Bogen to Mrs. I.M. Kowalsky. June 24, 1920.

Along with a recent donation to JDC, Leslee Kowalsky-Sack noted that her grandfather, Rabbi I.M. (Ichel Meier) Kowalsky could be found throughout the JDC Archives in the 1920s. A quick and curious search by a JDC archivist in the Archives’ online database yielded reports, correspondence, and photos of a man who achieved much in his time as an early JDC staffer.

Leslee’s grandfather, Rabbi Kowalsky, was born in 1890 in Zagarow, Poland, but left in 1908 to settle in the United States. Once in the States, Rabbi Kowalsky traveled the country and served as Rabbi in a different synagogue every weekend in those towns that could not afford to hire a Rabbi full-time. When not on assignment for JDC, Rabbi Kowalsky, his wife, and three children (his son, Harry Aaron Kowalsky was Leslee’s father), lived in Brooklyn, but they did join him in Europe for a period of time.

Though she was only five years old when he passed, Leslee had always known of her grandfather’s connection to the Joint. She had copies of letters he sent and that were sent to him, as did her father. Despite all of that, however, Leslee says she has learned much more about her grandfather in the past few years since the JDC Archives began to digitize and provide access to its materials on its online database.  Since then, she says, she has found more correspondence and was even able to identify her grandfather in some of the JDC Archives' photos. After browsing these photos, reports, and letters, Leslee was surprised to learn that her grandfather wore a uniform in his line of work and that he could write English so flawlessly. As it turns out, Rabbi Kowalsky was not only an early JDC staffer, but more specifically he was also a member of JDC’s Overseas Unit No. 1.

Rabbi Kowalsky’s involvement with the Joint began in the 1920s when he was recommended to the Governor of Massachusetts as someone who could help Jews in need overseas. He was especially qualified, as he was fluent in 17 languages and dialects! Dozens of qualified field workers, primarily American social workers, were recruited in late 1919 to plan activities and to investigate local and regional needs firsthand in Poland. The members of Overseas Unit No. 1, including Leslee’s grandfather, represented “every element of American Jewry” and were the first staff unit that JDC sent overseas. The Unit arrived in Paris en route to Poland in February 1920 and branched out from Warsaw to set up urgently needed sanitary, medical, and child care programs throughout the region. According to a report by Boris Bogen, Rabbi Kowalsky’s first field assignment was in Lodz “…to adjust serious difficulties that ha[d] arisen between the distributing committees there.” From there, Rabbi Kowalsky worked across Eastern Europe, first as the Director for the Brest-Litowsk territory and later as JDC’s representative in Kiev. In these roles with JDC, he rendered relief to impoverished Jews in Eastern Europe and was beloved by his colleagues and those he helped in the field.

With help from the JDC Archives online database, Leslee was able to fill in the gaps of her grandfather’s story. Explore your own family history with the JDC Names Index.

Leslee Kowalsky-Sack lives in Prince Edward Island, Canada. This story has been shared with her permission.

Categories: Early Soviet Union
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