The continuation of this photography exhibit examines the role of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“the Joint”) in rescuing refugees and working to sustain Jewish community life in Poland up to the present day.
Refugees, Victims of Persecution, and Emigration
Although emigration was not the Joint’s primary domain, the organization aided those seeking safe havens and helped to facilitate the emigration of Jews who wished to leave their home countries.
“On to the West” reads the sign on the railroad car in which these Polish Jews were repatriated from the Asiatic region of the USSR (1946) by John VachonAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
From a prewar Jewish population in Poland of 3,300,000, only about 220,000 Jews survived the Holocaust, including about 160,000 who fled Nazi-occupied Europe eastward to the Soviet Union. After the war, the surviving remnants of this community chose repatriation to Poland.
The Joint delegation at the funeral of victims of the Kielce pogrom (1946) by Press Associates Inc.American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
For those who simply could not remain in Poland, particularly after the Kielce pogrom in 1946, the Joint was there to assist with their emigration.
Refugees were shepherded from temporary camps in Poland through way stations in Czechoslovakia en route to the displaced persons camps operated by Allied Forces in Germany, Austria, and Italy.
As permanent immigration opportunities opened up in Palestine (later Israel), the United States, and other parts of the world, the Joint paved the way for these Polish Jews to build a new future elsewhere.
Education and Yiddishkeit—Jewish Heritage and Tradition
World War I and its disruptive aftermath threatened the religious, educational, and cultural institutions that had made Poland one of the most important centers of Jewish scholarship, learning, and culture.
Mealtime at a Joint-supported summer colony (1922) by Photographer unknownAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
In the interwar period, the Joint helped to restore and support Jewish schools and institutions.
Maccabi gymnastics exhibition (1922) by RafaelAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
The Joint worked in partnership with the entire spectrum of Jewish groups and ideologies: Hasidic groups, Zionists, Labor Bundists, Yiddishists, mainstream Orthodox groups, and others.
"Yeshiva bochers" (1926) by Photographer unknownAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
Hebrew school supported by the Relief Committee for Polish Jews (1920/1926) by Photographer unknownAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
Following the devastation of World War II, the Joint strove to cultivate Jewish tradition and culture. Yiddishkeit—Jewish heritage and identity—was fostered through Joint-supported cultural and educational activities and sport clubs for Jewish youth. All of the Joint’s efforts took place within the official political parameters of the country.
At this time, no program had a more profound impact on Jewish youth than the summer camps where children were able to embrace the richness of their heritage and traditions.
Jewish Community Life
For over 100 years, in addition to providing humanitarian assistance, the Joint has assisted in preserving Jewish community life.
The Felix Warburg Colony established by the Joint for homeless Jewish refugees (1923) by Elias GrossmanAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
Jewish communal institutions, including yeshivas, children’s homes, schools, health care agencies, and mikvahs (ritual bath houses), were supported throughout Poland in the interwar period.
After the Holocaust, the Joint worked with remnant Jewish communities to rebuild and maintain the foundations of Jewish life in an effort to build as vibrant a community as possible within the constraints of the times.
Davening (praying) in a synagogue (1958) by Jean MohrAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
The Joint Today (Since 1981)
JDC was able to return again to Poland in 1981, with the goal of providing aid to aging Holocaust survivors. As the Communist government began to falter, JDC widened its mandate and began helping Poland’s Jewish communities build for the future.
Held under wraps for so many years, Jewish life soon began to come alive in Poland, most notably in the major cities of Warsaw and Krakow.
Today, JDC is working to meet the changing needs of Poland’s increasingly young and active Jewish community, while at the same time maintaining its commitment to help with the welfare needs of impoverished Holocaust survivors.
Community development programs are key aspects of JDC’s current work in Poland, with a special focus on reaching out to the younger generation, the future leaders of Jewish life.
Havdalah service at the summer camp (2013) by Piotr KulisiewiczAmerican Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives
As more and more Poles have continued to discover their Jewish roots, families that for years were silent have begun talking about their Jewish heritage.
This is an abridged version of an original exhibition presented at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow in 2014, curated by Anna Sommer Schneider. The exhibition was a collaboration among the Galicia Jewish Museum, the JDC Archives, and JDC’s Poland Office. The traveling exhibit was presented at two venues in the U.S. in 2016. Institutions interested in hosting the exhibit should contact the Galicia Jewish Museum at email@example.com.