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Beyond Relief: JDC in Interwar Ukraine and Crimea

By 1920, war, revolution, and famine had left the newly emerged Soviet Union in chaos. JDC brought aid to impoverished Jews in the region, especially desperate after years of bloody pogroms and ongoing exclusion from any government services. JDC hoped to free Jews from such crippling conditions and provide them a secure place in the emerging society. Agro-Joint, established in 1924, created Jewish agricultural colonies and industrial schools in Ukraine and Crimea. By 1938, Agro-Joint’s work was subsumed by the Soviet system. Disturbingly, at that point, many Agro-Joint leaders and some colonists were arrested as part of the Great Terror orchestrated by Stalin.

In Depth

The Russian Revolution turned a land already devastated by World War I into the setting for civil war and famine. When the Soviet government opened its borders to foreign aid in 1921, the American Relief Administration (ARA) began sending food for the starving millions. JDC partnered with ARA to provide food, clothing and medicine on a non-sectarian basis. It also alerted ARA to famine conditions in the Ukraine, which had been excluded from the officially sanctioned agreement. Jews there faced the added horrors of pogroms and the long-crippling effects of exclusion from full citizenship. In late 1922, JDC obtained Soviet permission to operate independently from ARA: supplemental food, clothing, shoes, medicine, and fuel were shipped. JDC also began to establish rehabilitation programs aimed at bringing permanent improvement to the lives of Jews. Local homes for Jewish orphans, the disabled, and the elderly were revived or created, hospitals and clinics created, and savings and loan programs initiated.

JDC threw its financial, advisory, and legal support behind a burgeoning “Back to the Soil” movement. In 1924, it formally established the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation (Agro-Joint). With the cooperation of the Soviet authorities and under the leadership of Dr. Joseph A. Rosen, Agro-Joint took jobless Jews (labeled “non-productive”) from traditional shtetls and resettled them in agricultural colonies in the southern Ukraine and Crimea. By answering Soviet needs for increased food production, colonists gained citizens’ rights and access to government services. JDC provided the financing, training, seeds, and American modern tractors. In 1928, over 200 Agro-Joint colonies were operating; by 1936, some 70,000 Jews had turned from tradesmen into successful pioneers, working the land and managing livestock in communally run settlements. Throughout the settlement region, Agro-Joint channeled funds for medical and social services through local mutual-aid societies.

During the late 1920’s, the Soviet government began a major push to industrialize the USSR. Citizens’ rights were extended to members of the deprived classes if they turned into “productive” factory workers. To finance the great overhaul, wheat was sold abroad. Farmers were required to hand over a major portion of their crops to the government and unwieldy approaches to cooperative farming were imposed. Most Jews preferred to find work in the cities. Agro-Joint expanded to meet these developments, offering young men and women training as artisans and skilled factory workers, and creating cooperatives for their products. But by 1938, the Soviet government had absorbed all Agro-Joint colonies, factory-schools, and service programs into the State system; the relationship was officially terminated. Disturbingly, at that point, many Agro-Joint leaders, physicians, and some colonists were arrested as part of the Great Terror orchestrated by Stalin.

Note: Beyond Relief: JDC’s Work in the Ukraine and Crimea between the Wars features historical photographs from the JDC Archives and from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Joseph A. Rosen Collection.