The largest nonpolitical organization dedicated to helping Jews in distress all over the world. Generally known as the JDC or “Joint” and headquartered in New York, the organization (until 1931) was called the Joint Distribution Committee of (the American) Funds for Jewish War Sufferers. It was founded on 27 November 1914 with the aim of centralizing allocations of aid to Jews adversely affected by World War I.
The JDC’s resources came from funds collected by the American Jewish Relief Committee—organized on 25 October 1914 and headed by wealthy Reform Jews of German origin, including Louis Marshall (who served as president), Jacob H. Schiff, and Felix M. Warburg; and the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering through the War (Central Relief Committee)—organized on 4 October 1914 by Orthodox Jews of East European origin and chaired by Leon Kamaiky. These groups were joined in August 1915 by the socialist People’s Relief Committee, chaired by Meyer London. Warburg became the JDC’s first chairman. Eastern Europe was and has remained one of the JDC’s main areas of activity.
At first, the JDC simply transferred funds to local Jewish relief organizations such as the Evreiskii Komitet Pomoshchi Zhertvam Voiny (Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims; EKOPO) in Russia and Das Jüdisches Hilfskomite für Polen und Litauen in Germany. By the end of 1917, the JDC had transferred $2,532,000 to Russia, $3,000,000 to German-occupied Poland and Lithuania, $1,532,300 to Galicia, and $76,000 to Romania.
Aid packages being dispensed at the remittance office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Warsaw, ca. 1920. Photograph by “USA” Werkstatte. (YIVO)
The Joint began its work in Warsaw in 1919, first as a part of the American Relief Administration (ARA) and then independently. Boris D. Bogen organized and headed the JDC Overseas Unit in Warsaw, which was staffed by dozens of American experts. They organized urgently needed sanitary and medical aid, as well as child care. The JDC’s appropriations for the relief of Polish Jewry in 1920 alone totaled almost $5 million. On 5 July 1920, during the Polish–Soviet war, two JDC emissaries, Israel Friedlaender and Bernard Cantor, were killed by the Red Army in the town of Yarmolintsy (Podolia, Ukraine) while traveling from Kamenets-Podolski to Lvov.
In Czechoslovakia, the local Jewish relief committee distributed aid from the JDC. In Hungary, a Jewish relief committee, which united Orthodox, Neolog, and Zionist Jews, was created after it was ascertained that Hungarian Jews were being discriminated against in the distribution of aid transmitted by the JDC through the ARA. During the emergency relief period of 1919–1920, the JDC expended more than $22 million for various forms of relief and rehabilitation abroad.
After July 1921, the JDC ceased giving general relief and reorganized its work on the principle of functionality. Its aim became to stimulate Jewish economic reconstruction and to strengthen local community institutions to the point at which these groups could take the care of the weak upon themselves.
Refugees and Emigrants
Military operations during World War I forced hundreds of thousands of East European Jews to leave their homes. Some were expelled eastward from the war front by the Russian Army in 1914–1915. After the war, many returned from Soviet Russia to Poland and the Baltic States. Others tried to emigrate to the United States and Western Europe.
Those hoping to reach the United States were helped by the JDC’s Refugee Department, which provided aid (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine), assistance in establishing contact with relatives in America, and help in drawing up exit documents. The JDC also helped refugees returning from Russia to find work, acquire trade skills, and obtain affordable loans, whether for opening businesses or for repairing or building homes. By April 1923, the organization had helped 300,000 refugees and returnees: 185,000 in Poland and 75,000 in Lithuania. The organization also supported 7,000 Jewish students from Poland, Romania, and Hungary who were studying in Czechoslovakia, as admission of Jews into their home countries’ universities was restricted.
Medicine and Sanitation
Faced with the catastrophic health and sanitary conditions in Poland, the JDC began to render emergency medical aid. Starting in 1921, its medical department developed systematic means of fighting typhus and ringworm; vaccinated 30,000 children; disinfected thousands of homes; renovated hundreds of bathhouses and medical institutions; and provided equipment and medicines to hospitals and outpatient clinics.
We are working for a healthy generation. Come join us and take part and help." Yiddish poster. Artwork by S. Nichamkin. Printed by Paul Schöpf, Berlin, 1926, with the aid of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and distributed in Eastern Europe by OZE. (YIVO)
In 1923, a school for nurses was founded in Warsaw with JDC support. The Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdorowia Ludności Żydowskiej; TOZ), formed in 1921, received financial support from the JDC and gradually built an effective system of health services for the Jewish population. By 1939, TOZ was responsible for more than 400 medical and sanitary facilities in 50 Polish cities and towns.
The medical aid rendered by the JDC to Jews in Romania, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania was similar to that in Poland, but on a smaller scale. The largest share went to Bucovina, Bessarabia, and Subcarpathian Rus’.
In 1922, some 40,000 orphans were registered in Poland, and another 14,000 lived in Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The JDC Child Care Department placed orphans in shelters and with families; foster families were also located in the United States for hundreds of orphans. In 1926, more than 120 children’s shelters in Europe were subsidized by the JDC; thousands of orphans learned trades. In 1923, the Organization for Child and Orphan Care (Centrala Opieki nad Sierotami; CENTOS) was founded in Poland. The JDC gradually turned the care of orphans in that country over to the latter agency.
When mass immigration to America proved to be unrealistic, the JDC concentrated its efforts on the economic rebuilding of East European Jewry. The JDC Reconstruction Department in Europe was founded in 1921, and was headed by Aleksandr Landesko. The reconstruction program, jointly carried out with the ICA (or JCA; Jewish Colonization Association) and ORT in Bessarabia, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, included renovating dwellings, developing loan funds, distributing equipment for craft production, providing professional and technical training, and promoting Jewish engage-ment in agriculture. By May 1924, the department had allocated more than $2 million for funding loans in Europe; at least a quarter of the credits were sent to Poland. Some 8,000 homes were renovated or built in 400 communities.
A junk dealer who received aid from the Free Loan Program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with his family, Warsaw, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
In Lithuania, the Jewish National Council used assets received from the JDC to establish a People’s Loan Bank, which became very popular among the Jewish population. In old Romania—which had suffered relatively less from the war—reconstruction began early and proceeded successfully, but in Bucovina, only a tenth of the aid was able to be applied to reconstruction, as the immediate needs of the population were greater.
In May 1924, the JDC and ICA organized the American Joint Reconstruction Fund, to which the JDC contributed $3 million and the ICA $2 million. The fund supported loans, production cooperatives, and artisans. By 1931, in Poland alone approximately 1 million persons had used the services of the loan funds.
The Soviet Union before World War II
The Soviet government attempted to gain control over the distribution of JDC aid, having pushed aside the old Jewish community organizations. Thus, the first agreement that was concluded with the Soviets in 1920 obligated the JDC to work with the Jewish Public Committee (known by its Russian abbreviation Evobshchestkom; or Yiddish abbr., Yidgezkom or Idgezkom), controlled by the Bolsheviks. Concurrently, famine in the Volga region and eastern Ukraine enabled the JDC to act independently within the framework of the ARA (1921–1923), providing nonsectarian aid in an amount approaching $4 million. During that time, the JDC fed up to 2 million people in Ukraine and Belorussia. In 1922, with partial JDC funding, Evobshchestkom provided help to 132,000 children in children’s homes, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, and outpatient clinics.
In 1923, the JDC brought 86 American tractors to Ukraine to reconstruct Jewish agricultural colonies that had been destroyed during the war. The success of this initiative inspired the director of JDC’s Russian branch—Dr. Joseph Rosen, an American agronomist of Russian origin—to advance, together with the Soviet authorities, an ambitious plan for turning hundreds of thousands of impoverished shtetl Jews into peasants.
In 1924, an agreement was signed between the JDC and the Soviet government that spawned the creation of the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation (Agro-Joint). The corporation undertook to agrarianize the Jews, while the government, represented by the Committee for the Settlement of Jewish Laborers on the Land (KOMZET in Russian; KOMERD in Yiddish), promised to give the new settlers land free of charge in Crimea and Ukraine, as well as tax and other benefits. To ensure financial backing for the project, in 1928 the JDC created the American Society for Jewish Farm Settlements in Russia (Amsojefs), with James N. Rosenberg as its chair and Julius Rosenwald as its main patron. The funds collected by Amsojefs enabled Agro-Joint to continue working in the USSR even during the Great Depression, when the JDC’s activities in other countries nearly ceased.
Toolmaking course at the Agro-Joint Evrabmol trade school, Odessa, USSR, 1934. Evrabmol is a Russian acronym for Jewish Working Youth. (YIVO)
Modern agricultural equipment, high-yield seed, and breeding cattle were delivered to Jewish colonies in the USSR from the United States. Agro-Joint agronomists helped train the colonists, teaching them advanced methods of agricultural work. In the city of Dzhankoy, Crimea, Agro-Joint built a factory for maintaining and repairing agricultural machinery. Agro-Joint helped more than 150,000 Jews to resettle the land, founded or strengthened more than 250 settlements, and expended $16 million, not counting long-term credits. In the 1930s, however, the collectivization of villages and the end of unemployment in the towns led to reduced numbers of Jewish peasants.
Simultaneously, Agro-Joint gave aid to the urban Jewish population, supporting loan and credit funds (370 funds were operating in 1927), production cooperatives, medical facilities, and professional and technical schools. A portion of the budget was expended on supporting independent Jewish organizations engaged in social welfare, Jewish culture, and underground religious activity.
Agro-Joint’s work was constantly under suspicion and was subject to the watchful eye of the Soviet security services. In 1938, the organization had to discontinue its activity in the USSR, and many of its leading workers were arrested. Some—including Rosen’s local deputies Samuil Liubarskii and Yeḥezkel Grower (Iekhezkel’ Groer)—were accused of espionage and were executed.
Table: JDC Leaders
World War II, the Holocaust, and Displaced Persons
With the beginning of World War II, the JDC assisted Jewish emigration from Europe. In 1941, it provided financial support for the departure of refugees from Lithuania to Palestine and Japan. Aid was also sent to Jews in German-occupied territories. JDC aid even penetrated the Polish ghettos, thanks to the efforts of Sally Mayer, director of the organization’s Swiss branch, and Isaac Gitterman, director of the Polish branch, who managed to transfer $300,000 to the Jewish underground in Poland in 1943–1944. In those same years, the JDC, through the International Red Cross, gave aid to Jews in Transnistria. In 1944, Mayer participated in ransoming three trainloads of Hungarian Jews (3,344 persons) from the Nazis.
By an agreement between the USSR and the Polish government in exile, signed on 30 July 1941, the JDC sent parcels to Polish Jews who had been evacuated to Central Asia. In 1942–1945, the program had expended $2.2 million. In 1943, the JDC was permitted to deliver food, clothing, and other goods to the USSR. These items were supposed to be distributed by the Soviet Red Cross Society on a nonsectarian basis in regions with high concentrations of Jews. In fact, the aid reached very few Jews. In 1946–1947, the JDC supplied a significant amount of penicillin and medical equipment to Soviet hospitals. More than $2 million was expended on such deliveries in 1944–1947.
From the End of World War II until the Collapse of the Communist Bloc
At the end of the war, an agreement was reached between David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, and Joseph Schwartz, chairman of the JDC’s European Executive Committee, stipulating that the JDC would take care of Jews in displaced persons camps and would finance legal and illegal Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. The aid included food, clothing, transportation, money for railroad tickets, and maintenance in transit camps; this program was called Relief in Transit (RIT). Of the $30 million expended, $10–$12 million went to help Jews go to Palestine (the Beriḥah operation). In 1945–1952, the JDC spent $342 million to aid victims of the Holocaust. After the war, the organization opened offices in all East European countries except the USSR.
At the beginning of May 1945, the first shipment of JDC aid to Polish Jewish survivors arrived in Warsaw via Teheran, to be distributed by the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Centralny Komitet Żydow w Polsce; CKŻP). An official JDC office was opened in Poland in October of that year, headed by David Guzik (killed in 1946 in an airplane crash). The number of Jews in Poland grew as refugees were repatriated from the USSR. JDC offered economic rehabilitation to those wishing to remain in Poland and assistance to those seeking to emigrate. In fact, a majority decided to try to leave Poland, and JDC supplied them with trucks, food, and clothing. Lubavitch Hasidim, many of whom had come to Poland using false documents, were given special attention. The JDC also fed and clothed volunteers at the Haganah training camp in Lower Silesia (1947–1948), and subsidized Zionist kibbutzim for youths.
Members of the Mizraḥi Zionist youth group Bene Akiva (maintained by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), doing Israeli dancing in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains, Brusno, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), 1946. (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Photo Archives)
Aid to those remaining in Europe included resources for finding and ransoming Jewish children who had been placed with Christian families during the war; providing monetary assistance to the elderly and disabled; strengthening communal institutions; erecting monuments to victims of the Holocaust and ghetto fighters; and supporting cultural activities, including subsidizing Jewish theaters, books, and newspapers. The JDC supported state children’s homes, gave shelter to Jewish orphans, supported Jewish schools (with an enrollment of 20,000 pupils at the end of 1946), encouraged religious activity, and helped to settle repatriates from the USSR in German territories annexed by Poland. This aid was rendered mainly through CKŻP, and also directly to the revived community organizations, TOZ, and the Religious Communities Association.
From early 1947, the JDC began focusing more attention to supporting Jewish production and service cooperatives. By late 1948, there were 208 Jewish cooperatives in Poland, providing livelihoods to 18,000 people. The cooperatives received credit from the Jewish Bank, which was established with JDC help (later renamed Cooperative Bank for the Productivization of the Jews). In December 1949, the JDC was expelled from Poland, having expended almost $21 million there.
Working in Hungary in 1946–1952, the JDC allocated $52 million for food, clothing, education, and social welfare. It was then accused of espionage and expelled (January 1953); many local Jewish figures who had worked with the JDC were arrested. The organization was dismissed from Romania in March 1949 and from Czechoslovakia in January 1950. At the Slánský Trial in November 1952, the JDC was accused of espionage, sabotage, illegal currency transactions, speculation, and smuggling, under the guise of charitable activity. In January 1953, during the Doctors’ Plot in the USSR, the Soviet press called the JDC an espionage organization, upon whose instructions the “doctor-saboteurs” allegedly acted.
During the years of post-Stalin liberalization, the JDC returned only to Poland (remaining there until 1967). It financed kindergartens and summer camps and helped Jews returning from the USSR (1956–1959) to get settled. The JDC also helped Hungarian Jews who fled to Austria after the suppression of the 1956 uprising. On a visit to Prague in August 1967, JDC’s executive vice-chair, Charles Jordan, was abducted and murdered.
Unable to continue its work in Eastern Europe legally, the JDC set up a program of covert aid that inherited the Relief in Transit name. In aiding Soviet Jewry the JDC cooperated with the Israel governmental organization Nativ (Liaison Bureau of the Foreign Ministry). For this aim, in 1953 the JDC also established and financed the Société de Secours et d’Entraide (SSE), a “front” organization in Geneva whose task was to render aid to Jews in the Soviet satellite countries in Europe from which JDC was officially barred. The program included the shipment of packages, medical supplies, and a wide variety of religious items as well as money transfers to East European Jews. Packages were sent from Israel and Europe; after 1967 they could only be shipped through intermediary firms in Western Europe. In Hungary, the aid expended yearly by the SSE grew from several tens of thousands of dollars in the 1950s to $750,000 annually in 1977–1978. This money was allocated mainly for aid to elderly, sick, or solitary persons. The Czechoslovak, Polish, and Bulgarian governments also permitted the SSE to give aid to Jews in their countries. The Conference on Material Claims Against Germany provided the JDC $44 million for the RIT program from 1954 to 1964. In 1979, the JDC officially returned to Hungary, and in 1981 to Czechoslovakia and Poland.
After the Six-Day War, the JDC worked officially only in Romania, having been invited there through the efforts of Romanian Chief Rabbi Mozes Rosen, chairman of the Central Federal Council of Romanian Jews (FEDROM). Using JDC funding, FEDROM provided food, clothing, and medical aid to Romania’s rapidly aging Jewish community. Kosher dining halls were organized, and several homes for the elderly were equipped. In the 1970s, the government of Israel paid ransom money to the Romanian secret police for every Jew who emigrated. These transactions were financed by the JDC.
The USSR’s share in RIT grew steadily from a modest portion in 1950s to become the largest by the 1980s. In 1963, some 1,000 parcels containing clothing (mainly overcoats and shoes) and Jewish religious articles—were sent to the USSR each month. From the end of 1960s through the 1980s, refuseniks also received parcels, which became a factor in their struggle for emigration. The program was expanded and refined under the leadership of JDC’s executive vice president Ralph I. Goldman. In 1984 the number of parcels sent exceeded 81,000.
In the 1970s, when a significant number of the Jews leaving the USSR on Israeli invitations expressed the desire to settle in the West, the JDC, together with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and diverging from Israeli policy, helped them resettle in the United States. It also financed their stay at the transit camps in Ostia and Ladispoli, Italy.
The Post-Soviet Era
In 1988, the Soviet government invited the JDC to renew its work in the USSR. A Russian Department was created in the JDC office in Jerusalem, which with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States, changed its name to the CIS Department (headed by Asher Ostrin). JDC offices were opened in the 16 largest Jewish centers in the former Soviet Union. Once again, the organization concentrated on two main areas—social welfare and relief, and renewal of Jewish life.
The economic restructuring undertaken by the Soviet successor states led to tens of thousands of Jewish pensioners being turned into persons with dire needs. As a base for extending assistance to them, the JDC created 160 Ḥesed (Kindness) social welfare centers. The first such center opened in Saint Petersburg in 1993. By 2000, the Ḥesed centers were helping 240,000 elderly and needy persons, distributing food parcels, clothing and shoes, monetary grants, and medical and rehabilitation equipment. Hot meals were delivered to bedridden persons in their homes.
The revival of Jewish life, undermined by the Soviet regime for 70 years, was accomplished through a network of 170 Jewish Community Centers established with JDC aid. The organization also helped communities to receive restitution for former synagogues and then renovate them. It also supported the establishment of public libraries, the development of Judaic studies and research, and the training of Jewish leaders and social workers.
Asher Ostrin, Director of the CIS program of the JDC (left) and Seymour Epstein, JDC regional director for Siberia, at the opening of a synagogue renovated with JDC assistance, Omsk, 1996. (Michael Beizer)
After 1989, the restitution of communal property—especially synagogues confiscated by the Communist regimes—became the key to financial independence for communities in the region. The JDC helped with these negotiations and offered advice to communities on obtaining maximum benefits from the property received. More than 100 synagogues were returned to Jewish communities in the CIS alone. In the Czech Republic, the government returned such a sufficiently large portion of real estate, synagogues, Jewish ritual objects, and items of historical and art value that the Jewish commu-nity was able to become financially independent using the property’s income.
The JDC has launched various social programs in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The Romanian community needed the most support, since it accounted for almost half of the elderly persons receiving home-care services from the JDC. In fact, by the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, thanks to JDC support, soup kitchens provided meals to about 12,000 people a year in Romania. In the Baltic States, the JDC helped the three largest Jewish communities—Riga, Vilnius, and Tallinn—to establish a basic communal infrastructure consisting of Jewish community centers (JCCs), social welfare projects, and similar endeavors. JDC supports cultural and educational programs for children, such as the Ronald S. Lauder/AJJDC International Summer Camp in Szarvas (Hungary), where up to 2,000 Jewish children from different countries spend each summer. The JDC also provides religious articles and kosher food and subsidized religious activities and celebrations. The organization’s Buncher and Leatid programs (the former named for the sponsoring family; the latter from the Hebrew for “to the future”) provide training for lay and professional communal leaders.