Israeli Researcher Explores Post-World War II Jewish Community in Poland, as Assisted by JDC
Following the Soviet liberation of Poland from July 1944-January 1945, the remnants of Polish Jewry began to reconstruct their lives in Poland after the shattering effects of the Holocaust. About 275,000 survivors, a mere fraction of the pre-war community of 3.5 million, returned to a country ravaged by war and torn by an internal political struggle between local communists and nationalists. In her M.A. thesis titled “The Role of the Joint Distribution Committee in Rehabilitation and Characterization of Jewish Community in Poland from 1945-1949,” researcher Batya Langer from Haifa University explores three main groups and ideologies within the Jewish community in Poland after the war, and the different forms of assistance offered to them by JDC .
The secular socialist Bund party sought to re-integrate the Jews into Polish society by helping people rehabilitate themselves and become productive citizens. Efforts were focused on the revitalization of Jewish economic life through the establishment of industrial and financial cooperatives. JDC provided consultation and funding for this project and assisted with the importing of raw materials and equipment that could not be obtained within the country.
Langer identifies the Orthodox community, who were concerned mainly with the resurrection of religious life in Poland, as the second group. JDC reconstructed synagogues, renewed destroyed cemeteries, and rehabilitated yeshivas to ensure that a new generation of rabbis would replace those who were lost in the Shoah.
To help the Zionist movement, the third ideological group of the postwar community in Poland, JDC financed a framework of kibbutzim established by the movement, where the young members were taught agricultural techniques and underwent para-military training. Most importantly, JDC supported the exodus of approximately 120,000 Jews from Poland, many via the illegal Bricha movement, which clandestinely brought Jews from Eastern Europe across the occupied zones and into Palestine.
Through the course of her research, Langer found that the contributions of the Joint to the three groups created a dynamic that benefited the entire Jewish population. With this, JDC ensured that the Jewish community retained its independence in Poland to rehabilitate itself as it saw fit.
JDC was expelled in 1949, when all Jewish life was banned by the Polish Communist party, and returned in 1981 when they were invited back by the Polish authorities.
A Lens on Poverty
JDC returned to the Soviet Union in 1989, after a 50-year absence after JDC’s Agro-Joint program was terminated by the Soviet authorities in November 1938. The economic dislocations of the post-glasnost era left many elderly living in a precarious situation, many of them living without sufficient resources for basic needs. JDC initiated a welfare program and established Hesed welfare centers, where the needs of impoverished, elderly Jews could be met, with food, medicine and home care provided, and winter relief distributed. Home visits became integral to the program, as many elderly clients lived in walk-up apartments and were not able to leave their homes to procure foods and medicines and see to their most basic needs.
Asher Ostrin, the regional director of our Soviet Union programs in 1990, visited a Jew in Samara, Russia, a city whose inhabitants faced travel and residency restrictions under the Soviet Union. His touching encounter with a JDC Hesed client made the needs to which JDC was responding incredibly vivid for him. Misha was wearing eyeglasses, a prized possession he had received after serving the Red Army faithfully during World War II. Held together by tape and rubber bands, they contained the original prescription as this gentleman did not have the equivalent of 6 cents to replace them throughout the years. The Hesed saw to it that Misha’s glasses were replaced, and Ostrin used the timeworn pair at speaking engagements for many years, demonstrating the level of poverty that JDC encountered upon reentry to the Soviet Union.
While the realities of life in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) have evolved through the past 20+ years, JDC still provides free or subsidized medical care and other critical relief such as food and heating fuel, to more than 150,000 clients in the region. This is achieved in partnership with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, which generously supports the welfare services for Holocaust survivors in the Soviet Union. Thankfully, however, the days of men like Misha living with the same eyeglasses for nearly half a century are long gone.
World War I Prisoner of War Cards Available
A collection of records of Jewish prisoners of war (henceforth PoWs) in Siberia from 1920 has been indexed and is now available online. The soldiers, depicted on the more than 1,000 cards that comprise the collection, served in the German and Austro-Hungarian armies. Consequentially these records, many of which contain biographical information and rare photographs, are an incredible historical resource for those who have German, Hungarian or Galitzianer heritage.
In the wake of The Great War and the Russian Revolution, approximately 160,000 PoWs remained interned in camps in Siberia. The quality of life in these camps was abysmal, with many dying from disease, starvation and hypothermia.
In 1919, the appalling conditions under which PoWs were living in Siberia were brought to the attention of the U.S. State Department. JDC’s representative turned to the Russian authorities to request permission to send relief to the camps of war prisoners. This relief, in the form of food, clothing, fuel, and money, was distributed on a non-sectarian basis. In addition, JDC’s office in Vladivostock conducted a survey of Jewish PoWs. The information was gathered on index cards which resulted in the formation of this important collection.
In 1920, JDC and the American Red Cross established the Siberian War Prisoners Repatriation Fund, which sought to repatriate all PoWs from Siberia to their homelands. Ships were chartered for this repatriation work which extended over one year. All PoWs who desired to return to their homes were able do so. This enterprise literally saved tens of thousands from death.
The genealogical information on these cards (see above) includes: the name of the prisoner; where and when he was born, did his army service and was captured; home address; nationality; religion and occupation; photographs as well as other information.
Search our Names Database to find World War I prisoner of war cards, as well as other records of JDC's rescue and relief operations around the world.
These records, as well as other rich documents that are of genealogical interest, have been made available through the efforts of a dedicated volunteer team.
A Tour Guide to a Century of Global Relief Work
Professor Yehuda Bauer, a world-renowned historian and Holocaust scholar, has chronicled JDC’s work in several important books, including My Brother's Keeper: A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Prof. Bauer was invited to deliver a lecture on JDC’s history for a global staff training program.In the talk, he describes the historic breadth and diversity of JDC’s global service work during the past 100 years.
Professor Bauer’s lecture is available on the JDC Archives website, divided into four chapters.
• The Establishment of JDC: JDC’s founding at the outset of World War I to raise needed funds for Jewish communities in Palestine cut off by the war’s outbreak from their traditional sources of aid in Europe.
• JDC and the Soviet Union: The establishment of Agro-Joint, an agricultural endeavor in the 1920s and 1930s to settle Jews as farmers in Ukraine and the Crimea.
• JDC in Poland and Germany: JDC’s work in the interwar period and its extensive work in the Displaced Persons camps after World War II, as the first American non-profit organization to receive official approval from Allied forces to work in the camps.
• JDC as a Global Organization: JDC’s ongoing relief and renewal efforts in other parts of the world.
This lecture serves as a comprehensive introduction to the milestones in world and Jewish history that JDC encountered and responded to in its 100-year history and demonstrates how the lessons learned in earlier operations continue to be relevant for JDC’s ongoing relief work today.
(A comprehensive list of Professor Bauer’s publications is available here.)
Esther Haskin and the Joint
In March 2012, Dr. Debby Kerdeman contacted the JDC Archives, having seen a photo (right) of her mother in our recently launched website feature of Holocaust-era photographs. “She always spoke fondly of her days in Amsterdam,” said Kerdeman of her mother’s time working for the Joint.
When Esther Haskin, born in Georgia but living in Texas, graduated from Tulane University with a Master’s degree in social work in 1941, little did she know that her degree would take her to faraway Europe. But heed the call she did, and she journeyed to Amsterdam via New York to help her Jewish brethren in the aftermath of the Holocaust. While she was employed first as a case worker in January 1946, she soon assumed the mantle of running the JDC Holland program in March 1946, and did so with great dedication until February 1947.
In an August 13, 1946 memorandum to the JDC New York office Haskin writes, “Here in Amsterdam things are moving right along…I have a decent staff, both in size and in ability. In fact, I go to the office now at 8:30 in the morning and I am able to leave by 7 in the evening, and so I feel as if I am just doing half a day’s work. For the first time I have some leisure…”
Her overflowing workload included working with refugees and displaced persons, and reuniting children, parents and family members. She cultivated good relationships with the Jewish community in Holland, the U.S. Army, governmental offices and UNRRA (United Nationals Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).
In March 1947, Haskin returned to Dallas, Texas for personal reasons. She remained dedicated to the Joint, however, and volunteered with the efforts of the Dallas Federation’s fundraising campaign. In July 1947 she became JDC’s representative in the southwest.
During this period, Esther met a Jewish refugee from Austria named Arthur Kerdeman, who, after being arrested in Vienna, was sent to the concentration camp Dachau. Kerdeman survived the war and married Esther in 1951 in Evansville, Indiana, soon after their meeting in 1950.
In November 2013 Kerdeman and her husband David Tarshes contacted JDC to donate $265.90 to JDC. This amount represents reparations money that Debby received on behalf of her father Arthur from the Austrian government. “I know my parents would have been thrilled that this final reparation payment went to the JDC. My husband and I are honored to have made this donation.”
See photos from JDC’s work in the Netherlands in our curated photo gallery.
Insight into Moses Beckelman: neither pencil-pusher nor pushover
His initials are penned in a corner of nearly every document filed in JDC's Paris headquarters in the early 1950s.
Moe, as he was affectionately called by friends and JDC executives, was Director of JDC Overseas Operations from 1951-1955. He signed on with “the Joint” in 1939 and was assigned to Kovno, Lithuania (formerly Poland). In 1939 when Russia seized the city of Vilna from Poland, and turned it over to Lithuania, Beckelman was sent to Vilna to oversee JDC operations with both refugees and the local Jewish population. Beckelman sought first-hand knowledge of the hardships JDC was trying to alleviate, and interviewed stranded Jewish refugees to better understand their plight.
Forced from their homes in German-occupied Poland to fields along the border, the refugees were denied entry into Lithuania. In a Nov. 8, 1939 memorandum, Beckelman reported meeting a group of 31 refugees, including two 12-year-old children: "This was the third day they had been on the frontier, in subfreezing weather. Most of them were unable to talk coherently but kept screaming to us and crying to be taken away."
At least 25,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Vilna between October 1939 and May 1941. One-third of the refugees were completely dependent on relief from JDC and others for their basic needs. JDC allocated $575,000 for refugee relief in Lithuania during this period. JDC also provided assistance to the 60,000 Jewish residents of Vilna, before the Nazi troops seized the city in June 1941.
With experience as a New York social worker during the Depression, Beckelman came to Vilna with the skills necessary to deal with an influx of refugees. Beckelman's accounting degree from City College of New York provided him with the financial background to handle the business side of the major aid effort. Beckelman supervised JDC's funding of transportation for thousands of refugees with visas for other countries, including 3,500 people with visas issued by Japan's Consul in Kovno, Chinue Sugihara. JDC also funded food programs, housing, medical care, vocational training, special programs for children and elderly people, cultural and educational activities and the distribution of clothing As Director of Overseas Operations, Beckelman later oversaw the development of MALBEN, the social services network for ill and elderly immigrants in Israel; the growth of JDC services in Iran and North Africa, and was involved with the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work established by JDC in Versailles, France.
Beckelman died suddenly in 1955, at the age of 49, and was survived by a wife and young daughter.
Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and JDC’s Response
On the evening of November 9, 1938, a series of coordinated attacks were carried out against Jews in Nazi Germany, Austria and areas of German-occupied Czechoslovakia. The violent pogroms were waged by the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party and non-Jewish civilians, and with the complicity of the German authorities who failed to stop the violence. The name Kristallnacht, literally “Night of Crystal,” comes from the shards of broken glass that were remnants of the synagogues, buildings and stores of the victimized Jews.
JDC had been assisting Jews in Germany throughout the 1930s, as they became disenfranchised and were barred from participation in German politics, culture, education, professional life, and social outlets. As the largest foreign organization in Germany whose goal was to help Jews, JDC monitored the country’s treatment of its Jews closely. An eye witness of the events in Berlin and Frankfurt sent a detailed report to JDC headquarters about the horrific event, which destroyed 267 synagogues, shattered the shop windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial establishments, desecrated cemeteries and claimed the lives of at least 91 Jews.
The name of this eyewitness is unknown, as it was kept secret at the time for security purposes. However the report, combined with other accounts, was helpful in mobilizing JDC’s response to the catastrophe. JDC and the United Palestine Appeal joined forces to raise money for overseas operations. They created the United Jewish Appeal through which they collected tens of millions of dollars to help Jews in Nazi Europe.
On Saturday we commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Sources used: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, JDC Archives materials, I Seek My Brethren: Ralph Goldman and ‘the Joint”: Rescue, Relief and Reconstruction by Tom Shachtman.
Using Digital Technology to Research Icaac Mendel Ganc’s Name
Icaac Mendel Ganc’s name might have stayed forgotten if not for the JDC Archives six-year digitization effort that has made his records accessible in an online database. Ganc’s name appears on six World War II-era records and document JDC’s efforts to help him flee the Nazi regime from Poland to Lithuania, Lithuania to Japan, Japan to India, and India to Palestine.
A floormaker born in Warsaw, Poland in 1916, Ganc was 25 years old in 1940 when he fled eastward to Vilna, Lithuania. His name is on a list with 8,977 other Jewish refugees who registered with the Refugee Committee of the Kehylah [Congregation] in Vilnius and received aid from JDC.
His name is then on a second document of European refugees seeking JDC aid in Japan in 1941. The list was compiled by the Jewish community of Kobe, Japan with whom JDC partnered to organize and distribute aid.
Ganc’s name then appears on an outgoing 1941 cable from JDC to the Jewish Relief Association, detailing refugees who are leaving Japan for other safe havens in the West. His name is then on a fourth document, a May 1941 list of refugees sailing on the S.S. Fusimi Maru from Kobe to Bombay (now Mumbai), en route to Palestine. The fifth document with Ganc’s name indicates that JDC is trying to ascertain the names and address of his American relatives, so they can provide financial assistance for his flight to Palestine.
The sixth document with Ganc’s name is a letter from the Canadian Jewish Congress to the United Jewish Refugee and War Relief Agencies, dated July, 4th, 1941. The letter is an appeal for $1,500 to pay for the ship that will take Ganc, along with 13 other refugees, to Palestine.
While piecing together this story using original documents or microfilmed records certainly would have been possible, it would have been unlikely that Ganc’s saga would have come together without the assistance of digital technology. If you think JDC may have assisted your family, start searching our Name Database to find documents about your relatives’ journeys. If this does not yield relevant records, cast a wider net by searching our Document Collection under “Full Text Search.”
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