Panel on JDC’s Work in Poland at 2020 Association for Jewish Studies Virtual Conference

Scholars discussed JDC’s Multi-faceted Work in Poland in the Twentieth Century

The JDC Archives presented a panel discussion on “JDC’s Multi-faceted Work in Poland in the Twentieth Century: Three Case Studies” at the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), which took place online from December 13th to December 17, 2020. The papers on this panel are part of a stream of research examining the multi-faceted work of JDC in Poland in the twentieth century.

Glenn Dynner, a Professor of Religion at Sarah Lawrence College and the recipient of the 2016 Fred and Ellen Lewis/JDC Archives Fellowship, investigated how, in the interwar years, a per capita funding policy resulted in the Joint playing a major role in helping establish yeshivas in Poland. JDC also played a role in the rescue of Hasidic leaders and yeshiva student bodies during the Holocaust.

Yeshiva students studying at a JDC-supported religious school, Warsaw, Poland, 1926. JDC Archives.

Anna Sommer Schneider, Associate Director and Associate Teaching Director for the Centre for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, examined the attitudes and motivations of JDC’s leadership toward the education of young Jews in Poland and how this attitude changed over the five decades of Communist rule in Poland. She addressed two key issues in her paper: What form of assistance was provided by JDC to the Polish Jewish community and how did JDC perceive the importance of this direct assistance to foster the growth of Jewish education in communist Poland?

Schoolgirls in a JDC-supported school, Lodz, Poland, c.1959. JDC Archives.

Rachel Rothstein, Teacher and Social Studies Coordinator at the Weber School in Atlanta, focused on JDC’s work in Poland after 1967, a period when JDC was expelled from working in Poland, but nevertheless found ways to get assistance to the needy and the community through the Société de Secours et d’Entraide (SSE), a Geneva-based, JDC-sponsored organization. Rachel Rothstein argued that during that period, JDC leadership shifted its attention mostly towards religious and welfare needs.

David Engel, Maurice Greenberg Professor of Holocaust Studies and a Professor of History, Jewish Studies and Political History at New York University, served as a respondent. Linda Levi, Director of JDC Global Archives, chaired the session. The panel was well-received and sparked an engaged question and answer period.

Since its origins in 1914, JDC has played a significant role in providing aid to Polish Jews. At various times, JDC shifted the nature of its assistance to adapt to changing circumstances and needs of the Jewish communities. During World War I, JDC subsidized locally run soup kitchens to provide food to starving Jews. In the interwar period, JDC worked with local communities to establish new institutions, including orphanages, heath institutions, and vocational training schools. JDC helped to establish and supported Jewish schools of many types, reflecting the makeup and preferences of the Jewish communities.

Following the outbreak of World War II, JDC served as a lifeline for Polish Jews, providing food, clothing, money, and shelter. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Joint focused on childcare, from helping Jewish orphans to educating and feeding Jewish children in children’s homes.

In 1949, the Communist authorities in Poland forced the Joint to terminate its activities. In 1957, the Polish government invited the Joint to renew its work in the country. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, the Joint’s work once again was abruptly interrupted. During periods when it was unable to operate in Poland, the Joint tried to provide discreet relief, distributing basic goods to sustain families both physically and spiritually. JDC returned to Poland in 1981 and today focuses primarily on community building and Jewish renewal.