JDC Archives Invited to Cosponsor Workshop with POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The American Jewish Joint Distribution (JDC) Archives is pleased to announce that it has been invited to cosponsor a workshop on “The Activities of the Joint in Poland and Neighboring Countries 1945-1989: Reality and Perceptions.” The program will be held at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw on August 6-8, 2019. This workshop is cosponsored by the JDC Archives and the POLIN Museum. Other partners include JDC Poland, the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, and the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University.

While JDC’s humanitarian reach in Europe and the Soviet Union during the interwar, World War II, and immediate postwar periods has attracted some scholarly attention, less is known about its work in Eastern and Central Europe in the decades following World War II. Intermittently, JDC was expelled from the various Eastern Bloc countries and invited to return; the timing for each country mirrored the government’s agenda at the time.

Letter of Ouster from Czechoslovakia (January 9, 1950)

Jewish communities in the Eastern Bloc found themselves isolated from the Jewish world and cut off from access to vital material support. JDC was restricted in the kind of activity it could pursue. During periods when it was unable to operate in-country, the Joint, to the extent possible, provided discreet relief, distributing basic goods to sustain families both physically and spiritually for months at a time. In periods of political upheaval such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Joint also assisted those who chose to leave the countries behind the Iron Curtain. In these times of crisis, JDC often became a target of Communist propagandists and its activities were blatantly distorted, especially during the early 1950s, when Communist propaganda depicted JDC as a “Zionist spy organization” whose goal was to overthrow the socialist system.

Hungarian refugees boarding buses as JDC workers look on (1956)

The workshop will explore the following questions: What roles did JDC play in the survival of the region’s Jewish communities during the period and what impacts did this have? How was JDC able to navigate the political constraints in the region in order to provide assistance to Jewish communities? How should we understand the attacks against the Joint in Communist propaganda?

The keynote lecture will be delivered by David Engel, who is the Greenberg Professor of Holocaust Studies, Professor and Chair of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and Professor of History at New York University. The program will also include a Special Film Screening: Jewish Communities in Challenging Times-Rare JDC Archival Footage from Poland and Eastern Europe. Participants will also get a chance to tour the POLIN Museum’s core exhibit which uses multimedia, artifacts, replicas and interactive tools to tell the history of Poland’s Jews from their arrival in the Middle Ages through the Holocaust and beyond. Other highlights include a visit to the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute where participants will view the permanent exhibition on the Oneg Shabbat Group, which under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum, staff member of JDC in Warsaw, established an underground archive to record life in the Warsaw ghetto during the war.