2014 marks the centennial of the establishment of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known in Poland as the Joint. The purpose of the organisation was to alleviate the suffering experienced by Jews in Eastern Europe and Palestine after the outbreak of the First World War. From the very beginning, the Join was extremely active in Poland, where its activities – in the face of war, pogroms and poverty – concentrated on rescuing, supporting and helping Jews by caring for children, organising medical care and supporting economic development.
During the Interwar Period, the Joint began working on social reconstruction by supporting existing community organisations and creating new ones. The Joint also financed the training of social workers, established nursing schools, and subsidised Jewish schools and religious activities. One of the greatest achievements of the Join was the introduction of credit unions (providing interest-free loans) which supported Jewish craftsmen and small business owners, allowing them to achieve financial independence.
It is estimated that from the end of the First World War to 1941 the Joint donated around 30 million dollars (today a value of 450 million dollars) to humanitarian and social aid in Poland.
After the war, the Joint continued its support for the few survivors. Thanks to the commitment of the Joint, in just a few months after the liberation of Poland from the German occupation Jewish institutions started to operate in all parts of the country – including orphanages and children’s sanatoriums, and Jewish schools, hospitals and canteens. It soon also launched vocational schools and a number of other initiatives aimed at the Jewish community.
The Joint also operates in Poland today. After many years of functioning underground, Jewish life began to flourish in Poland, particularly in large cities such as Warsaw and Kraków. An increasing number of Poles discovered their Jewish roots, and families that were silent on this subject for years began speaking openly about their Jewish ancestry.
The organisation attempts to meet the changing needs of an increasingly younger and more active Jewish community in Poland as well as engaging in improving the living conditions of older people, particularly Holocaust survivors. A key aspect of the contemporary activities of the Joint in Poland are development programmes, concentrating particularly on reaching out to the younger generations – the future leaders of the Jewish community.
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
Rescue, Relief, and Renewal is first and foremost a photography exhibition. Most of the photographs presented are from the global archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, while some were made available through the Jewish Community Centres in Warsaw and Kraków, which the Joint supports. Many of these photographs have never before been published; some are little known, while others are famous. Together, the photographs in the exhibition tell the story not only of the Joint’s 100 years of work in Poland, but also of the local Jews who have benefited from the Joint’s assistance over the past century.
By showing their fate through the prism of the actions of a single organization, we have provided an important portal into the wide spectrum of Jewish life in Poland prior to 1939. The pre-World War II Jewish community in Poland was not only numerous (numbering around 3.3 million people), but also extremely diverse, both religiously and politically. From Orthodox to Progressive to completely secularised; from socialists to Bundists to Zionists. From poor craftsmen and traders living in countless shtetls to prominent intellectuals belonging to the urban elites. The former often needed help, and the latter were themselves involved in local charitable and philanthropic activities.
It is estimated that approximately ten percent of Polish Jewry survived the Holocaust. Many of these survivors left the country in subsequent waves of emigration. The Joint helped both those who left, as well as the few who chose to remain. The photographs from the postwar period (until 1989) are particularly important, revealing as they do lesser-known aspects of modern Polish Jewish history.
In contrast to the monochromatic archival photographs, the final section of the exhibition, which documents contemporary Polish Jewish life, is comprised of color photographs. This is due, of course, to technological advances, but it also symbolically reflects the extraordinary rebirth of Jewish life that has taken place in Poland. For the first time in decades, a colorful polyphony of Jewish voices is once again resonating here.
This exhibition is a result of collaboration among the Galicia Jewish Museum, the JDC Archives, and JDC’s Poland Office. We are grateful to the Kronhill Pletka Foundation for their generous support which made this exhibit possible.