A Tale of Two Photographs

An emigration tale from “Down Under”

Polonsky Family, Nikopol, Ukraine, April 1909

Back L-R: Jack (1892), Yochanan (1886), Aron (1890), Yechezkiel (1894)
Seated L-R: Raphael (1885), Chassia (mother, 1862), Ephraim (father, 1860), Mechlia (1884), Myer (1880)
At front L-R: Alec (1903), Ben (1900), Harry Spivakovsky (1906, son of Mechlia). Photo provided by Ian Grinblat

Two family-group photographs bookend the migration story of the entire Polonsky family from Ukraine to Australia. Fleeing war, persecution, and famine, the family found refuge in Australia and received JDC assistance along the way.

The portrait above was taken in Nikopol, Ukraine, when the entire family had gathered at home for Pesach in 1909. Yochanan, second from the left in the back row, was on leave from the Army; Jack, Aron, Raphael and Myer worked in various trades in distant towns; and Mechlia lived in a forest town with her husband Chaim. Only Ben and Alec were still living at home with their parents.

Soon after the photo was taken, Yochanan and Raphael set out for China seeking economic stability but returned home empty-handed. They sent their meager earning back to Soviet Ukraine, imploring the family to join them in Australia, but with the outbreak of World War I, sons Jack, Aron, Myer, and Yechezkiel were called to service. Torn apart by war and the Communist Revolution of 1917, the family was scattered throughout Russia and Ukraine. The unending civil war destroyed people’s livelihoods, and pogroms, a regular feature of life in Imperial Russia since the mid-nineteenth century, now erupted ferociously as multiple Ukrainian nationalist groups, loosely allied as part of the White army turned on the Jews in their midst. The winter of 1921 –22 was one of dreadful famine and starvation.

When JDC’s own Boris Bogen initially visited Eastern Europe in early 1919, he encountered Jews in the direst of circumstances: homeless, starving, in fear for their lives. Hoping to bring them succor, a special JDC commission followed on his heels with an overseas visit, fanning out into different regions and provinces of Poland. On Dr. Bogen’s recommendation, JDC mobilized a volunteer cadre of American Jewish professionals compelled by a powerful sense of responsibility to their brethren. In January 1920, JDC’s Overseas Unit Number 1 left to join Bogen in Warsaw in order to conduct a massive relief effort across Eastern Europe.

Identification document certifying the professional affiliation of Boris Bogen, JDC’s representative in Poland, c. 1920. (JDC Archives)

Responding to a Russian appeal for famine relief, JDC joined ARA (the American Relief Administration), setting up a massive feeding program in areas devastated by drought and after years of war, insurrections, pogroms, and bandit raids. In October 1921, postal connections between Russia and the US were re-established. ARA cleared the way for $10 food packages to be purchased in America and sent to individuals in famine-struck areas of the Soviet Union. JDC quickly began gathering subscriptions from American Jews for their needy relatives and friends. In the Spring of 1922, relief arrived in Berdiansk, where parents Ephraim, Chassia, and their son Alec had relocated, and essential foodstuffs and medical supplies were distributed by JDC.

Waiting for the opening of JDC’s soup kitchen in Aleksandrovsk (Zaporizhzhya), Soviet Ukraine, 1921. (JDC Archives)

In a July 1922 appeal for more assistance, addressed to JDC’s representative in Poland, Dr. Boris Bogen, the Jewish community of Berdiansk thanked JDC for the products that were sent to the city:

“We wish to tell you that your great action for the relief of your neighbors shall be entered by us in the ‘Pinkas’ of our city, so that your sympathy and responsiveness may be recorded forever and that posterity may know that you Americans were the first to respond to our distress.”

Rations that were distributed by the ARA to towns arranged by District. See specifically the rations sent to Berdiansk within the Alexandrovsk District, December 1922. (JDC Archives)

By December 1922, around $8 million worth of sugar, rice, vegetable oil, tea, flour, and canned milk had been shipped to Russia. As ARA required, half the packages went to non-Jews.

View photographs of JDC assistance in interwar Ukraine and Crimea.

Soon thereafter, Yochanan, carrying Australian visas for his whole family, arrived in Constantinople (now Istanbul). While waiting for his family to emerge from Russia, he volunteered with the fledgeling Jewish relief organization (JDC) which was helping Jewish communities in Turkey.

Beginning in January 1922, the family (splitting into two groups) began the long journey to Australia. The rail journey to the Black Sea port of Batumi (formerly Batum), proceeded smoothly in three stages: first to Rostov-on-Don (270 km), then to Baku, in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea (1300 km), and finally to Batumi (700 km). The small Jewish community of Batumi was almost overwhelmed by the influx of Jewish refugees. In fact, JDC archival documents indicate that in 1923 a ship with 800 Jewish refugees from Tbilisi and Batumi arrived at Constantinople. A local grocer in Constantinople, Mr. Fantalis, worked as the agent for JDC; he shuttled repeatedly between Batumi and Tbilisi, the capital, to obtain exit visas for the refugees, and it was he who negotiated with the captains of cargo vessels to carry groups of Jews to Constantinople in the empty holds.

When the Polonsky family embarked from Batumi, on a Friday afternoon early in April 1922, the Jewish passengers assembled on the deck for Kabbalat Shabbat, and, according to Alec, who was twenty years old, everyone participated, their singing strong and heartfelt. He remembered it vividly in his old age – such was their collective relief at leaving Russia behind.

After celebrating Pesach in Constantinople, the family proceeded, again in two groups, to Port Said, where the first group embarked on Ville de Strasbourg, a French ship, disembarking in Melbourne on May 22, 1923. The second group expanded to include Yochanan who had devoted nine months to working as a volunteer with JDC while he waited for his family in Constantinople. Together, they travelled on the Moreton Bay, a new ship of the Australian Commonwealth Line, disembarking in Melbourne approximately two weeks after the first group. Although Yochanan and Raphael paid the cost for their family’s travel, approximately £2000 in total, the migration would not have been possible without the help of JDC; stories mentioning the organization’s help passed on through the generations.

The second bookend is a portrait, taken in late 1924, of a family that in remarkably short time learned English and settled in Melbourne. Just four months after their parents had disembarked, the first Australian-born members of the family, Roy and Miriam, were welcomed in October 1923. Five years later, Jack, Myer and Yochanan established Polonsky Brothers, one of the first Jewish-owned Kosher butcher shops in Melbourne. Myer’s grandson, Irvin Rockman, served as Lord Mayor of Melbourne from 1977 to 1979. At its most recent reunion, on Sunday, May 15, 2022, seventy-five Polonskys and descendants marked the occasion by donating to JDC, which once again is working to rescue Jews in Ukraine.

Polonsky Family, Melbourne, Australia, 1924

Back L-R: Aron, Ben, Raphael, Jack, Alec, Shiphra Holding Roy (Ephraim) born Oct 1923, Harry Spivakovsky (Mechlia’s son), Mechila Spivakovsky nee Polonsky
Seated L-R: Pearl (Myer’s daughter), Rita holding Miriam born October 1923, Chassia, Myer, Yochanan, Rae Spivakovsky Mechlia’s daughter)
In front L-R: Myer’s two younger children, Susie (Shayndle) and Peter
The photographs on the wall behind the group are of the members of the family who died before the migration L-R: Yechazkiel, Mania Polonsky nee Orloff (Myer’s wife), Leib-Ber Polonsky (grandfather), Ephraim, Chaim Spivakovsky (Mechlia’s husband). Photo provided by Ian Grinblat

This story has been shared with Ian Grinblat’s permission. He is the eldest grandson of Aron & Rita Polonsky who were part of the original group migration. His mother, Miriam, is one of the two infants in the 1924 photograph of the family in Melbourne. This story came to our attention thanks to our colleagues at the Joint Australia.