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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]

[5.12. JDC work for Jewish children and schools in anti-Semitic Poland]

[Work for children makes JDC popular - funds of JDC for children organization CENTOS and and the health organization TOZ]

The question as to whether work for children was relief work exercised some of the minds at the JDC offices. To Kahn, at any rate, it was quite obvious that this was constructive work of the highest order, and he insisted on devoting roughly one-third of his Polish budgets to the support of various types of activities for children. This, of course, was in line with the traditional Jewish approach to social work generally and made JDC popular among the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe. A large percentage of these budgets went to two organizations that dealt mainly with children: CENTOS and TOZ.

[Supplement: At the other hand the Jewish organizations made themselves unpopular at the "Christian" population because "Christian" children received no help].

[Figures of Jewish children programs in anti-Semitic Poland]

The number of children requiring the attention of CENTOS, the child care agency, grew considerably in the 1930s. Only a small number of them could be accepted into institutions providing full-time care; these were mostly either orphans or half orphans. In 1937 there were 8,047 of these youngsters. However, the total number of children that CENTOS looked after, partly or wholly, grew from 15,102 in 1933 to 32,066 in 1937. These  included youths in vocational training institutions (they were included as JDC institutions in the figures for vocational training given above) and summer camps.

[JDC cooperation with children organization CENTOS]

JDC actually supplied about 12-13 % of CENTOS's budget, in line with its policy of helping others to help themselves. But these percentages were very important for the men who ran CENTOS. They could then go to the Polish government and municipalities and point to American help (in foreign exchange) as a weighty argument in their demand for Polish contributions. These contributions added another 17 % to their budget, and the rest was largely covered by membership contributions. This was a unique system of organization whereby CENTOS had over 45,000 registered members who owned, and theoretically ran, the organization and its institutions. They were, of course, recruited from the wealthier segments of the Jewish population, and there too, the fact that CENTOS had been set up by JDC and continued to enjoy its support was adduced as an argument in collection drives. (p.204)

[The work of TOZ with the poor Jewish families - TOZ medical facilities]

A similar structure characterized TOZ, though TOZ was smaller and weaker than CENTOS. The task of TOZ was not limited to children; it had to look after the health of the poorer sections of the Jewish population, young and old. It had only 11,191 members in 1937, and its budget was 1.4 million zloty, or less than half of the 3 million zloty budget of CENTOS. But it, too, spread its 142 institutions all over Poland, and tried to introduce modern hygienic methods into slums and poverty-stricken townships and villages.

One of its main achievement was the organization of lectures by various types of experts. Its 46 stations for mothers and babies gave valuable advice at very little cost to large number of women who could not afford to visit doctors. It had six X-ray installations and 29 dental stations, some of them mobile. It ran three Jewish hospitals, 33 ambulatory clinics, and 12 anti-TB dispensaries in 1938.

With regard to TOZ, JDC help was relatively larger than with CENTOS and amounted to 28 % of the TOZ budget. But Polish governmental and municipal help amounted to only 9.4 %, and the percentage of the budget covered by local Jewish contributions was about the same as for CENTOS. JDC supervised closely the expenditures and general activities in both cases through its Warsaw office.

[JDC network for children summer camps]

One of the most important types of work with children encouraged by JDC was the network of summer camps. The reasoning behind this network was that children who suffered privations throughout the year should spend the summer in healthful surroundings, with adequate medical attention and with plenty to eat, (p.205)

Table 14: Summer Camps in Poland
No. of camps
No. of children
xxxxxxxx1935xxxxxxxx 222 37,286xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxx1936xxxxxxxx 428 58,661xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxx1938xxxxxxxx 636 102,615xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


relatively speaking. In 1934 some 35,000 Jewish children went to summer camps supported by JDC-subsidized institutions. These included not only CENTOS and TOZ, but also the various Jewish school networks.

Direct participation of JDC in these camps ranged from 10 % of the budget in 1936 to 7.2 % in 1938; but apart from JDC's direct participation, the various organizations that ran the colonies were themselves JDC-controlled or -subsidized or both, and the expenses of these camps were part of their regular budgets.

The problem of starving children could not, of course, be solved by a few weeks of summer vacation.

[If also "Christian" children get summer camps in Polend is not mentioned. If not there is a big subliminal base for envy of the "Christian" population].

[Poverty of Jewish children in Poland]

Very large numbers of Jewish children went to school in the mornings without breakfast. The choice was whether to give them something to eat at school or let them go hungry. There was no question as to the response from JDC, despite its opposition in principle to direct relief. In the face of the deteriorating Polish situation and the approach of war in Europe, some JDC officials in New York asked whether some of these expenses could be cut; Kahn lost his usual patience and retorted: "Try to be hard and do not give any money for feeding and clothing and see what will happen. I hear so much about your wanting to be drastic - try it!"

(End note 64: 44-21, Kahn's letter, 7/25/39 [25 July 1939])

They did not [cut].

[1940-1943 the ghettos would cut, under the eyes of the Polish Catholic - extremely anti-Semitic - population. Many Jewish children have survived on farms with helping on farms, and later were defined as "Christians" to hold them there for further help on the Polish farm, because the men were killed in the war...]

The problem of Jewish children in Poland was very closely bound up with the question of Jewish culture and religion. JDC's main task was to try to save the economic and social structure of European Jewry; but it could not, and did not want to, close its eyes to cultural and educational problems. Cyrus Adler, head of the American Jewish Committee, served as chairman of JDC's Cultural and Religious Committee. In 1935 he states: "Hard as the situation is, if no effort is made to save the minds and the soul of the Jewish people, there will not be any Jewish people left to save."

(End note 65: Executive Committee, 3/26/35 [26 March 1935])

There was some truth in that statement, though the danger was less one of immediate cultural assimilation than of physical, economic, and ultimate cultural degradation and decline. As it turned out, the spirit of the Jewish people bore up remarkably well in the face of the most horrendous obstacles. (p.206)

[Orthodox Jewish families get no state schools for their Jewish children]

The first and most urgent problem was that of schooling. Polish schools were making it increasingly difficult for observant Jewish children to attend classes. In the 1930s the special Polish schools where Jewish children were excused from writing on Shabbat began to close down. The same fate awaited Jewish private schools.

The pretexts were usually of a purely formal nature, that is, nonobservance of regulations regarding the size of rooms, facilities, and the like that were ignored as far as the Polish schools themselves were concerned.

[Jewish schools have no money for renovations - Kahn's warnings that closed Jewish schools will never reopen]

Then there were Jewish schools that had to be renovated for reasons other than the pressure by Polish authorities; these schools, which depended largely on voluntary contributions, were rarely in a position to build or renovate without financial aid.

In 1934 Kahn was warning New York that "the schools, once closed, will never be allowed to reopen" by the Poles. "The institutions, fallen to pieces and deteriorated considerably, will cost very much more to restore if they are allowed to go to pieces altogether."

(End note 66: R17, letter by Kahn, 11/3/34 [3 November 1934])

In the early 1930s Kahn was experiencing great difficulties in getting allocations for physical facilities for Jewish schools, but the situation eased somewhat later on as a result of increased funds. It was then that he stated his view that schools were as productive as industry and indicated his opposition to those in New York who wanted to increase "productive" investment at the expense of schools.

[Jewish schools in anti-Semitic Poland: Figures]

The Polish Jewish school structure was itself a model of confusion. At the end of 1935 a total of 523,852 children were registered in various types of institutions, government and private, from the primary grades to the age of 18. Of these, 343,671 studied in Polish schools, including those where certain allowances were made for Shabbat observance. This accounted for about 2/3 of the Jewish children;

the rest, 180,181 children, studied at Jewish institutions of different kinds. The largest of these were the religious primary schools, traditional chadarim, where Jewish law and religious observances were the main studies. These schools were said to have close to 50,000 pupils.

Some 35,585 girls studied in specially set up, rather primitive religious institutions that paralleled (p.207)

the chadarim. About 16,000 boys of high school age studied at various types of yeshivoth (higher institutions of traditional learning); thus over 100,000 children attended 963 religious educational institutions.

Of the rest, the most important were the Tarbuth schools, where most of the subjects were taught in Hebrew rather than Polish or Yiddish, though both the latter languages were also taught. There the stress was on modern secular schooling, with a careful balance of the sciences, humanities, and sports. Needless to say, this network of schools was under Zionist influence [because Hebrew was foreseen for Palestine and Yiddish should be exterminated and not been spoken in Palestine]. A total of 44,780 children studied in its 269 institutions. These included 9 secondary schools, from which much of the young Zionist leadership between the two world wars in Poland came.

Also Zionist, modern, and religious were the 299 schools of the Yavneh group, which had 15,923 pupils. Yavneh was under the influence of religious Zionist parties.

A special network of Yiddish schools (167 primary and 2 secondary) was organized by circles close to the Bund; this network was called Cisho. A total of 16,486 children studied in those schools; the trend was left-wing, Yiddishist, and anti-Zionist [because they thought Jews should not leave their home countries].

There was also a small network of 16 schools with 2,343 children (Szulkult), which tried to combine Yiddish with Hebrew [a multi-cultural schooling system].

That was the complete picture of Jewish elementary and secondary schooling in Poland.

(End note 67: All the figures are taken from a detailed report by Neustadt, dated 5/10/36 [10 May 1936]: Jewish Private and Public Instruction in Poland; 46-reports)

To this one must add the 167 yeshivoth for young adults, with their 31,735 pupils, who formed the backbone of traditionalist Jewry in Poland.

JDC paid special attention to the yeshivoth, mainly because Adler saw in them a certain guarantee for Jewish existence in Europe, and also because the many Orthodox supporters of JDC had the right to expect financial aid for the yeshivoth. Besides the yeshivoth, JDC also supported the Jewish Scientific Institute (YIVO), which had its main center in Vilna. In 1939 a JDC leader said of YIVO that its achievements made "the Hebrew University [in Tel Aviv?] look childish in accomplishment".

(End note 68: 44-21, Committee on Poland, 4/11/39 [11 April 1939])

This may have been somewhat exaggerated, but there was no doubt that YIVO was an institution of quality and had a right to expect JDC help. (p.208)

[JDC help for the Jewish schools in anti-Semitic Poland]

JDC had the choice of supporting all the different trends in Jewish education or none. The schools represented various types of political thinking no less than various trends in education, and JDC could not appear to be partisan to any particular trend. Subsidies therefore went to all types of schools; but the principle of supporting only capital investments, not current budgets, was carefully observed. This was sometimes rather liberally interpreted - for example, when it came to various types of teaching aids; but generally speaking JDC support went toward construction, repairs, acquisition of essential school equipment, and the like.

From 1933 to 1939 JDC school expenditures trebled,

(End note 69: From $ 44,000 to $ 121,000)

and while the total sums were quite small, a great deal was done with them. As in other cases, JDC made its support conditional on the raising of local funds. Without JDC contributions these funds would never have materialized. With them, many schools in Poland either were built or were salvaged for the use of thousands of pupils.

[Late 1930s: The last years of Jewish schools in Poland]

Yet despite all these efforts Jewish schools continued to shut down all over Poland in the late 1930s. In the Cisho network alone, 63 schools with 8,400 pupils were closed down by the Polish government between the two world wars, under a variety of pretexts. Kahn suspected that the Poles would attack the Tarbuth network as well. The same pattern that we observed in other areas was repeated here: the funds that JDC had at its disposal in Poland simply did not allow for any radical cure of the massive illness the Jewish economic and social structure was suffering from. Without JDC help, it must be presumed, the situation would have been considerably worse; with it, it was bad enough.