Snapshots of a Forgotten World

Photo album from JDC-supported orphanage offers insider view of daily life in interwar Poland

Because the artifacts and ephemera of the JDC Archives are intertwined with JDC history, they naturally also comment on Jewish history at large. Such is the case with a photo album from a Polish orphanage in the 1920s. The album was originally sent from an unnamed orphanage in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (presently Brest, Belarus) to Mrs. Anna and Mr. Samuel Marcus in Brooklyn, New York in 1929. Its accompanying certificate acknowledges their financial support to the orphanage, with the album delivered to them as a token of gratitude. Every photograph in the album has written descriptions in Yiddish. There are images of both the exterior and interior of the orphanage, showing classrooms and dormitories inhabited by children of all ages, along with the teachers, nurses, and administrators who oversaw the home.

Images from the album include (left) the exterior of the orphanage and (right) staff who ran the home.

Philanthropic support from the Marcuses and countless other American Jews allowed JDC to have an active presence in post-World War I Poland. Even after the destruction and dislocation of World War I came to an end, the situation for Jews in Poland remained bleak. Civil war in neighboring Russia and the Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920 caused further hardship; for Jews, there was additional danger from numerous pogroms. Famine and disease were widespread, and the economy lay in ruins. Children were especially vulnerable, with several hundred thousand orphaned. JDC reports portray its office in Brest-Litovsk, which offered both financial and general relief for the Jewish population of the region, with an emphasis on support for orphans.

A group photograph from the album shows the large number of orphans at the home.

A JDC report from 1921 states, “In the city of Brest-Litovsk, the orphanage should be enlarged to accommodate at least 300 additional children. A ruined building has already been purchased, and plans are being made to begin building. At least 8,000,000 Marks will be necessary for this purpose. The remaining orphans will easily be cared for in private homes or taken over gradually by relatives.”

In Poland in 1923, JDC founded CENTOS—the National Society for the Care of Orphans—which remained active in Poland until World War II. Concerned for the welfare and well-being of tens of thousands of Jewish children in need, JDC set up kindergartens and summer camps, and provided food supplements, medical care, and dental treatment for at-risk children.

Students and staff in a classroom of the orphanage.

This photo album highlights JDC’s commitment to childcare during this period. Suddenly, the reports of the region are brought to life with images that show the assistance orphans were receiving daily. The exterior of the facility is polished, while the interior is clean and well equipped. The staff are dressed stylishly in the mode of the era, while the children appear happy and well nourished. Even more so, the album illustrates heartfelt thanks for the assistance. The personal inscriptions addressed to the Marcuses on both the cover and cover page of the album indicate that the album was made especially for them. The institution took the time to compile the album, arranging the numerous images and captioning the individual photos, so that the Marcuses would receive a thorough look at what their assistance provided. The need was great, but so was the response from American Jewry.

Images of the outside cover and title page of the album dedicated to the Marcuses.

In addition to offering an in-depth view of life for Jewish orphans in the interwar period, the album also complements other items that the JDC Archives houses. Crafts made by Polish Jewish orphans in JDC-supported orphanages in Krzemieniec, Poland (now Krements, Ukraine) in the 1920s are also part of the collection. Craft making was a form of vocational training, and these were likely sent back to the JDC in New York as proof of these efforts. The JDC Archives endeavors to preserve a multi-faceted history, and this is just one example of that approach. In the case of Polish Jewish orphans from the interwar period, reports offer detailed information pertaining to their assistance, including orphanage operations, while the album furnishes a snapshot of daily life in their forgotten world. The crafts remind us that the faces peering out from the pages were individual lives capable of creating and doing, one link in the chain of Jewish history. JDC strove to help these children, and the JDC Archives helps narrate their story. View photos of Post-World War I Poland and search the JDC Archives text collection.

Examples of crafts made as vocational training exercises in the Krzemieniec orphanage include (left) a cloth baby’s dress and (right) small leather boots. JDC Artifacts and Ephemera Collection.

JDC continues to expand its Artifacts and Ephemera Collection and is seeking items whose history is connected with that of the JDC, in order to help recount the organization’s story of rescue, relief, and renewal around the globe. If you are interested in donating a potential artifact or ephemera item to the JDC Archives, please contact us at [email protected].