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Yehuda Bauer: My Brother's Keeper

A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939

[Holocaust preparations in Europe and resistance without solution of the situation]

The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1974

Transcription with subtitles by Michael Palomino (2007)



Chapter 5. Prelude of the Holocaust
[A. Destruction of the Jewish existence in Poland 1929-1939]

[5.9. JDC work in anti-Semitic Poland: Kassas - Jewish starvation]

[1930s: Anti-Semitic Poland: JDC gives no support to Polish Jews - help only in special cases like floods or after pogroms]

In the face of these obstacles and difficulties, the policy of JDC was intractable and heartrending. In the 1930s JDC continued to (p.195)

refuse to spend its monies on relief.

[There is the suspicion that also JDC was in line with the Zionists to exterminate the Yiddish speaking Jews].

But that policy could not always be maintained. There were natural disasters, such as the floods in Galicia in the summer of 1934, which caused damage estimated at 1 million zloty ($ 200,000). The Polish government established a "nonsectarian" relief committee (with one Jewish representative) and JDC contributed $ 10,000, or 5 % of the sum that was needed.

Then there were man-made disasters. After each pogrom, JDC stepped in to save whatever could be saved. Its Free Loan kassas were strengthened in localities hit by the outrages, and the child care, health, and educational institutions supported by JDC increased their allocations to help as best they could.

Some of the items that appeared in JDC budgets as constructive help through the support of organizations were in fact little more than intelligently - indeed, constructively - applied relief to stricken communities.

[JDC industrialization plans for Poland]

Generally speaking, however, in its approach to the Polish Jewish problem JDC moved more and more in the direction of the industrialization plans advanced by Kahn. The sums devoted to Poland were increasing, and there seemed to be an opportunity for testing Kahn's plans.

[The industrialization which Stalin performs in Soviet Union in the 1930s is performed in Poland only since 1950].

[JDC kassas are partly not operating!]

The problem of the industrialization plans was intimately connected with the future of the Free Loan and Reconstruction Foundation loan kassas. The older, more conservative loan kassas were able to help those who were in a stronger economic position by loans with a low rate of interest. We have also seen that the position of these kassas weakened as a result of the 1929 economic crisis.

On paper there were still 680 such institutions in Poland in 1933, but an indeterminate number of these were in fact inactive. In 1934 it was estimated that only 340 of the 601 still registered were actually operating. The figures quoted in various JDC sources were contradictory; but by 1935 only 223 kassas were said to be in operation, and 221 more were inactive.

[1935-1937: Anti-Semitic Poland: Reconstruction Foundation for reorganizing the JDC kassas]

The Reconstruction Foundation stepped in, and throughout 1935-37 tried hard to reorganize the kassas. Their importance lay, after all, in the fact that large numbers of small traders, artisans, (p.196)

and small manufacturers, as well as members of the intelligentsia, had recourse to them. Even in early 1936 the number of active members was estimated to be over 47,000. There was an umbrella organization of these kassas, largely influenced by Zionist elements. This group, the Verband, had no financial responsibilities, but was supposed to supervise the kassas and to see to it that the rules and regulations were observed. It was not at all efficient.

In the autumn of 1936 Kahn and ICA [Jewish Colonization Association] intervened decisively and declared that they would maintain direct contact with the kassas and no longer work through the Verband.

[May 1937: Anti-Semitic Poland: Reconstruction Foundation sets up Central Financial Institution under Karol Sachs]

Despite the negative experience with the Central Bank in the early 1930s, the Reconstruction Foundation set up a new Central Financial Institution, headed by its own nominees from the conservative and largely assimilated group around the Jewish industrialist Karol Sachs. Sachs received the highest accolade JDC could bestow on a Polish Jew: he was placed "in the class of our own leaders in America".

(End note 52: r10, Troper report, 2/17/39 [17 February 1939])

The institution was set up in May 1937, and from then on the Reconstruction Foundation gave its credits to the kassas through it, leaving the Verband to deal with questions of organization and rules. In 1937 the foundation appropriated 1 million zloty ($ 200,000) to reorganize and revitalize kassas, under the prodding of its very effective deputy director, Noel Aronovici.

[1932-1937: Kassa work without industrialization]

At the same time, the foundation [Reconstruction Foundation] was pursuing an essentially conservative policy. Between 1932 and 1935, during and after the dissolution of the Central Bank, the foundation actually withdrew more monies from the kassas than it gave them in credits.

(End note 53: Between 1932 and 1934, 745,000 zloty were granted in credits and 2,394,000 zloty received in repayment (46-reports 36/7, memorandum of 9/30/37 [30 September 1937])

This money was not returned to the foundation, but kept in Poland. It was not reinvested, however, until the new Central Financial Institution had been set up in 1937/8. In 1937 the foundation books showed a reserve of $ 494,000 in cash, and its total expenditure in credits granted that year was considerably less than that. ICA had no real wish to invest the monies in doubtful industrialization plans in Poland, and so the kassas carried on with their work of helping those whose economic situation was sound. At the end of 1937, 241 (p.197)

kassas were functioning and 161 more were awaiting reorganization; 205 others were defunct and had to be liquidated.

[Supplement: There comes up a severe and logic suspicion: Industrialization in Poland should be realized only without the Yiddish Jews. The anti-Semitic Polish government did not want that the Jews would integrate by industrialization as the integrated in the Soviet Union. So the Yiddish Jews should first be exterminated before industrialization comes in Poland in the 1950s].

At the same time, the Reconstruction Foundation included in its work program loan kassas organized by merchants on an occupational rather than general basis. The functioning kassas included 37 such merchants' institutions, which were really small merchants' banks; these were quite successful. Kassa membership in Poland at the end of 1937 numbered some 68,000.

[Loan kassas of the Reconstruction Foundation help reinstall Jewish business from inner Polish Jewish refugees in the towns]

As we have already seen, the political situation of Polish Jewry began to improve very slightly in early 1939. However, the economic situation was worsening, and the loan kassas had do intervene in what really amounted to a prevention of catastrophe rather than reconstruction. While most of the work in this respect was done by the Free Loan kassas, the loan kassas of the Reconstruction Foundation also played a part. A report in 1939 claimed that in many places the kassas had prevented the elimination of Jewish market stalls and bakeries; Jews who had been forced to leave their villages by the pogroms of 1937/8 were now being helped to establish places of business in towns. Certain projects engaged in by the more successful artisans and traders, such as fowl fattening, sawmills, and production of soda, were also being aided by the kassas.

(End note 54: R60, report of 4/18/39 [18 April 1939])

[Reconstructions Foundation is too strict - many kassas are ruined by the foundation itself]

Relations between the kassas and the Reconstruction Foundation were not always happy. The foundation did supply credits, but only on strict terms. On the harsh conditions of economic crisis in Poland there were occasionally bitter recriminations at the rigid way in which agreements were interpreted. The complaint was even heard that the foundation credits had been collected "harshly and ruthlessly, and many kassas have been ruined" by the foundation itself.

(End note 55: Raphael Szereszewsky, quoted in a report of the Reconstruction Foundation, 5/22/36 [22 May 1936], WAC, Box 347 (d)

[Supplement: That's the sense: The Yiddish Jews should not be helped...]

Against this stood the foundation policy, which was quite clearly "not to save the weak and unsound, but to fortify and strengthen the sound and secure positions."

(End note 56: 44-21, Alexander Kahn report, 12/9/37 [9 December 1937])

[Popular Free Loan kassas]

The main instrument of reconstructive work in Poland was not, however, the loan kassa but the Free Loan kassa. These institutions, it will be remembered, were JDC creations and had no (p.198)

contact with the Reconstruction Foundation-run enterprises. They became immensely popular as the economic crisis hardened, because they charged almost no interest on loans. There were 676 such kassas in Poland in 1933, and 841 by 1939. This meant that in practically every Jewish village there was a kassa where impoverished artisans and traders and intellectuals, and to a certain extent workers, could get loans to tide them over difficult times. These loans were very small, averaging about $16. But they often prevented a Jew from becoming a public charge.

[CEKABE gives credits to the kassas]

The central institution of the kassas was the CEKABE,

(End note 57: Polish initials for the Central Society for Free Credit and Furthering of Productive Work among the Jewish Population in Poland)

through which credits were channeled to the kassas; it also filled the functions exercised by the Verband in regard to the foundation loan kassas.

[Kassa figures]

The total amounts loaned by the Free Loan kassas were at first considerably below those loaned by the foundation kassas - in 1934 the latter loaned $ 38.8 million, whereas the Free Loan kassas only loaned $ 2.2 million - but the number of free loan grew steadily throughout the 1930s. The average sums loaned were paltry, which in itself was an indication of the deteriorating position of the Jews.

While the number of free loans and their general totals were increasing, the Reconstruction Foundation kassas' work was declining: in 1936, the foundation kassas had loaned $ 15.8 million, or 40 % of the 1934 total.

Table 13: Free Loan Kassas in Poland
No. of loans
Total amount (in millions of zloty)
Average loans (in zloty)
[conversion in $]
($ 17.60)  
($ 19.40)  
($ 18.40)  
($ 18.80)  
($ 18)  
(End note 58: The figures are rather problematic. There are divergences in the reports and between one report and another. It must be remembered that there were self-help institutions approximating the JDC-supported kassas in almost every locality, and many of these were not recognized by CEKABE. Reports from the localities were not always accurate).


With the relative increase in funds available for Poland, Kahn returned to the idea of industrial and other constructive investments in strategic places. In May 1935 he asked for a special yearly allocation of $ 100,000 for that purpose. The idea was received favorably by Bearwald, who advanced the project in a memorandum of September of that year.

(End note 59:
-- Kahn to Warburg, 5/11/35 [11 May 1935], 15-33;
-- and 44-5, Baerwald memo, 9/18/35 [18 September 1935])

British help was solicited, and the Board of Deputies agreed to participate in the effort.

As early as April 1934 a Jewish Economic Council (known as Wirtschaftsrat) had been founded by CEKABE; it was run by Isaac Giterman. This now swung into action and in 1936 started very cautiously to help in establishing small local crafts and industries, and to supervise them, check the quality of the products, and aid in finding appropriate markets if necessary. This kind of rather plodding but quite effective small-scale work went on throughout  1937 and 1938.

[1938: Subcommittee TER for finding export markets - financed by JDC and others]
A special subcommittee set up by the Wirtschaftsrat in January 1938, called TER, took over the task of finding export markets for those establishments that needed it. In this, it was hoped, some government help would be obtained. A total of about $ 410,000 was invested in these ventures directly by JDC; an additional 30-40 % was found locally.

[JDC organizes help for families and artisans by fund raising at the Landsmannschaften in "America"]

In addition, the call went out to certain expatriate organizations in America, comprised of people who had emigrated from certain localities (Landsmannschaften). These were asked to contribute a minimum of $ 2,000, which would be matched by JDC. Up to 1938, 250 Landsmannschaften responded, and rather large amounts of JDC money went out to match these small grants.

The expenditure was under the surveillance of CEKABE.

In 1937 some 5,000 families were helped by these small ventures, which included such branches as mechanical weaving (at Choroszcz), carpenter cooperatives (Tarnopol), saddler's cooperatives (Chelm), and semiagricultural pursuits, such as vegetable farming, the planting of medicinal herbs, and the like.

[CEKABE helps families and artisans - JDC help for families - 1 mio. Jews at or beyond the edge of starvation]

Another venture of CEKABE was the establishment of small dairies on the outskirts of towns. This work was carried on in 1938. There were 2,088 families that were helped in this way in the first (p.200)

half of the year, but we lack information for the rest of the period, up to the outbreak of the war.

(End note 60: 46-report 1938. In 1937 Jacob Lestschinsky produced an industrialization plan of Polish Jewry for Simon Marks, which was based on the same principles as Kahn's plans: "Not to save the weak and unsound, but to fortify and strengthen the sound and secure positions." The plan would cost $ 4 mio., of which $ 3 mio. would come from abroad. See 44-21, Committee on Poland, 12/9/37 [9 December 1937])

By early 1938 Kahn had accumulated sufficient experience to decide that the experiment had been worthwhile. In January of the year [1938] he demanded a yearly allocation of $ 1 million for this kind of economic reconstruction, and hoped that within five years this would lead to the employment of 23,000 families. It can safely be estimated that up to the end of 1938 JDC had succeeded in finding new employment in these enterprises for about 10,000 families.

This in itself was a partial success, and JDC could justly be proud of it. Yet measured by the economic decline of the Jewish population in Poland and by the fact that about one million people there were living at or beyond the edge of starvation, the outcome of the efforts was small indeed. The basic problem of JDC was that with its relatively small resources it could do no more than help those who were above the danger line from sinking below it. JDC was not a government, and it could not solve the problem of the starving million.

For a few years JDC was helped in its efforts by the British Jews. In 1935 British Jews sent close to 40,000 pounds (almost $ 200,000) to Poland, to be distributed by JDC. This was repeated in 1936. But in 1937 the pro-Zionist and non-Zionist wings in Britain disagreed on aid to Poland, the Zionists favoring such aid. Collections went down, and no more real help was obtained. The help of the British Jews, while it lasted, was important from another angle. JDC and ICA (primarily a British organization) had been very interested in vocational retraining. JDC saw this as one of its main tasks.