When a Letter Becomes Art

Apr 13, 2017

Letter from the Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims, Vilna (YeKoPo) to JDC Representatives Dr. Boris Bogen, Mr. Jacob Billikopf, and Dr. Isidore Hershfield, September 2, 1919.

Letter from the Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims, Vilna (YeKoPo) to JDC Representatives Dr. Boris Bogen, Mr. Jacob Billikopf, and Dr. Isidore Hershfield, September 2, 1919.

Currently on loan from the JDC Archives are documents, photographs, and artifacts, all featured in the exhibit 1917: How One Year Changed the World at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. One item of particular interest is a letter of recognition from “YeKoPo,” the Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims, Vilna (c. 1919). Launched in Russia in 1914, “YeKoPo” established local branches throughout Eastern Europe to aid Jewish victims of pogroms and World War I. JDC supported the relief organization’s efforts to transport refugees, supply food, clothing, shelter, and childcare, as well as provide vocational training, medical and financial aid.

Speaking on behalf of the aid recipients, the letter, penned in Yiddish, recounts that JDC funds and relief work “guarded thousands of our children from despair, brought life to thousands of orphans, elderly, and widows, has brought home thousands of homeless, has supported Jewish artisans and workers and colonists, and has brought consolation, hope, and encouragement to the whole Jewish community.” The mundane activities of aid resulted in profound life improvements for the Jews of Eastern Europe, illustrated by the expressive word choices of the document. This heartfelt emotion and indebtedness can be sensed throughout the letter both in language and visuals.

Eighty three delegates from 74 cities and towns came together to express their gratitude for the aid provided by their “American brothers.” The towns are listed alphabetically, with each letter of the alphabet capitalized in a stylized manner. The resulting effect resembles an acrostic, emphasizing the sweeping territory affected by the aid.

The historic letter goes on to state that the help is invaluable not only in a material sense, but also in a spiritual sense. This sentiment can be glimpsed in the beautiful elements that trim the document, hand drawn by Ben-Zion Zuckerman. Flanking the text, a garland frame of colorful flowers and vines winds its way from a geometric pot, while below, an etched rectangular frieze of refugees is featured. The frieze is executed with such precision that one can see both the anger and sadness on the faces of the refugees as they turn their backs on their destroyed homes, as well as the intricate etching on jackets, cloaks, and grass. The border and frieze transform the letter into a work of folk art. The detailed colorization and looping calligraphy elevate the text, illustrating how important this conference was to the Jewish communities that attended. The finished product acts as a symbol of commemoration, as those who created the work of art no doubt wished to honor their champions in a tangible and lasting way.

This is not a letter simply meant to be read; instead, it asks to be displayed. For that reason, it is thrilling to know that this treasure is currently on view for the public. See the artifact firsthand, along with numerous other JDC treasures, at the National Museum of American Jewish History.