Helen Cytryn and the Joint: A Photo Identification 70 Years in the Making

Husband escaped Poland on a harrowing journey and ended up at an agricultural camp in Bolivia.

When Helen Cytryn flipped through the newly published volume I Live. Send Help., the last thing she expected to see was a photo of her late husband. Yet there he was in an agricultural camp, a World War II refugee husking corn like a true farmer. Living out the war years with ten thousand other Jewish immigrants in Bolivia, he had a difficult, multi-leg journey before reaching the farm in the Bolivian mountains. Traveling in 1939 from his Poland home, he journeyed via Germany to France and then journeyed by ship to Chile, where he trekked through the Andes Mountains to La Paz.

Refugees shucking corn ears on an agricultural settlement supported by JDC and SOCOBO. Jacob is fourth from the right.

Bolivia, 1943.

The JDC-supported Sociedad de Proteccion a Los Inmigrantes Israelitas, La Paz (SOPRO) was formed to provide financial aid to newcomer refugees. “JDC took care of Jack when he got to Bolivia, “said Helen, when discussing her late husband’s journey. Sociedad Colonizadora de Bolivia, La Paz (SOCOBO), a JDC-supported local organization, helped the European Jewish refugees train for their new livelihoods.

“Many of the Polish Jews who came to Bolivia were so poor and so illiterate…they really needed whatever help they could get,” said Helen, explaining the predicament of the new arrivals. Jack had been a university professor in Poznan, and his Latin allowed him to quickly learn Spanish. His language skills allowed him to play a key role for the Polish Jews, providing assistance and translating for them. He quickly became a spokesperson for the Polish Jews. (Other Jews in the community came from Germany.)

Eventually, a family connection enabled Jack to immigrate to the United States in 1946. Never forgiving himself for having left his mother, father and first wife behind in Poland, all of whom ultimately perished, he attempted to rebuild his life in the U.S. He met Helen and they were married for 58 years. “I used to call him a phoenix because he rose from the ashes,” said Helen.

See photos from JDC’s work in Bolivia during the war years in our special photo gallery.