JDC during the Time of the Spanish Flu (1918–1920)

JDC Archives documents illuminate similarities between today’s pandemic and a past global health crisis

The Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 flu pandemic, was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic that affected JDC operations domestically and overseas as well.

JDC fundraising campaigns in 1918 were suspended due to the restrictions of the health care authorities. On October 8, 1918, JDC admitted that on account of “the epidemic of Spanish Influenza . . . it would be impossible to get together the crowd at the meeting scheduled in New York.”

On December 11, 1918, Harry Plous, a member of the Upper Peninsula Organizing Committee, informed JDC’s Secretary Albert Lucas: “We are getting ready for that great relief campaign, but on account of the Spanish Influenza, we are going to make a big stop in this work. It is not allowed to hold, not only mass meetings but not even four persons can assemble.”

JDC Archives, New York Office Collection, 1914-1918, Folder #29, Letter from Harry Plous to Joint Distribution Committee, December 11, 1918; search.archives.jdc.org, item 2175.

The Spanish flu was common in the parts of Europe and Palestine where JDC actively worked, and seen by the organization as just another malady caused by the aftermath of World War I.

A Jewish woman and her two children outside a makeshift hut. Poland, 1920.

In October 1920, Dr. Harry Plotz, medical advisor of JDC, prepared a report about his trip to Poland. During his trip, Dr. Plotz visited and inspected health conditions of cities, orphanages, schools, and refugee camps in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. His general conclusions are still relevant today, one hundred years after the deadly summer of 1920:

The control of typhus fever can hardly be regarded as a problem for the Joint Distribution Committee alone—it is a government problem, even more, it is an international problem. The presence of an epidemic in one region is a menace to the world, as the influenza epidemic has already taught us. . . . The really effective way to combat the disease would be for the nations of the world to cooperate in a campaign in its eradication—a plan which I hardly think feasible at this time.

JDC Archives, New York Office Collection, 1919-1921, Folder #260, Letter from Harry Plotz to Mr. Felix M. Warburg, October 20, 1920; search.archives.jdc.org, item 234432.

Doctors and nurses from an anti-typhus team sponsored by JDC posing with disinfectant equipment. Rowne, Poland, 1921-1922.

The JDC Relief Department in Palestine described medical problems during the summer of 1918, citing influenza among many of the prevalent diseases: “Owing to severe epidemics of pneumonia, influenza and the usual great summer rise in malaria this side of our work was unfortunately very active.”

At a free community clinic, patients wait for a doctor’s attention. Palestine, c. 1920.

The report of the activities of the American Zionist Medical Unit (1918-1920), which was significantly subsidized by JDC, presented a desperate situation in Palestine. The report also discussed subsequent disease control methods:

Shortly after the arrival of the Unit in Palestine a cholera epidemic broke out in Tiberias. The military authorities took hold of the situation energetically. . . . There were at that time about 7,500 people in Tiberias, 4,000 resident Jews, 1,100 Jewish refugees from Jaffa, 2000 Muslims and 3000 Christians. To meet the needs of this population afflicted with endemic meningitis, Spanish influenza, malaria, dysentery and other gastro-intestinal disturbances, and the usual eye diseases a polyclinic was opened.

Nurse bandaging a patient in clinic. Nazareth, Palestine, 1920s.

Records located in the JDC Archives show a broad review of the activities of American Jewish organizations in Palestine. On September 15, 1920, the American Zionist Medical Unit sent a report to JDC, in which methods of early prevention and isolation were acknowledged as the most effective tool in combating the disease:

The Influenza epidemic in Palestine was not as serious as it was in many other lands this year, perhaps particularly because of the energetic steps taken to combat it. The school children in Jerusalem and Jaffa who showed the slightest trace of incipient Influenza were sent by their teachers to the Medical Unit for medical examination. If the examination showed positive results, the child was immediately isolated, thus preventing, in large measure, the spread of Influenza among the school children.

JDC Archives, New York Office Collection, 1919-1921, Folder #179.2, Letter from Regional Director to Joint Distribution Committee, September 15, 1920; search.archives.jdc.org, item 223335.

A hundred years have passed, and the world is once again facing a deadly disease. A few excerpts from documents from our archives show that the JDC and JDC’s medical units did everything possible to overcome the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1920, which they considered to be part of a larger sanitary and epidemiological problem.

Learn more about the Spanish flu by searching in the JDC Archives early text collections.

View more photos of JDC assistance to Jews in early Palestine and post-World War I Poland.