- The Survival of YidishkeytThe Impact of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on Jewish Education in Poland, 1945‒1989
The end of the Second World War revealed the huge extent of the damage to Poland, damage which was not just physical. The country had lost nearly six million of its citizens, including almost its entire Jewish population. According to Albert Stankowski, only some 425,000 of the estimated pre-war Jewish population of 3,330,000 were still alive at the end of the war. Not all of them returned to Poland from the Soviet Union, where the largest proportion had survived. As a result, in the immediate post-war period the Jewish population of the country numbered between 220,000 and 350,000, including almost 160,000 Jews repatriated from the USSR.1 The structures of Jewish life, including the local communities and the institutions that had regulated just about every aspect of daily life, had been entirely destroyed. Orthodox Jews, who before the war had been responsible for the religious education of many of the young, represented a huge percentage of the victims. People unconnected with the pre-war religious community made up the majority of those who survived, which had a real impact on the type of education envisaged for Jews in post-war Poland. Most were young or middle-aged. Barely a handful of children had survived the Holocaust: it is calculated that no [End Page 353] more than 5,000 of the youngest members of the pre-war Jewish community were still alive and most were orphans or semi-orphans. In July 1946 this figure increased to 25,000 as a result of the repatriation of Polish citizens from the USSR.2 However, by September only 15,000 children remained—the result of the huge wave of Jewish emigration, especially intensified by the Kielce pogrom in July of that year.3
Representatives of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce; CKŻP), formed in Lublin in the autumn of 1944, knew that, as a result of Poland's disastrous condition, the new communist authorities did not have the appropriate resources to support everyone in need. Therefore, almost immediately after the liberation by the Red Army of Poland's eastern lands, the chairman of the CKŻP, Emil Sommerstein, contacted foreign Jewish organizations with an appeal for immediate aid for the surviving Jews in Poland.4 The natural addressee was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York (JDC or the Joint). The JDC had begun working in Poland after the First World War and from virtually the start of its activities it had tried to introduce a new form of aid, 'constructive aid'. The organization's representatives were intent from the outset on mobilizing Polish Jews to actively seek work or be trained in suitable trades which could lead to paid employment. Hence, the JDC focused its efforts on setting up professional training, creating loan organizations, and purchasing tools for artisan activity. Thanks to the pattern established long before the outbreak of the Second World War, immediately after the end of hostilities it was possible to begin rebuilding the foundations of life for the small handful of surviving Jews. The work begun by the JDC after the Second World War, both in investment in the development of the economy and in schooling, educational, and cultural work, had an enormous impact on the development and education of Jewish youth.
It was no accident that it was the JDC, of all the Jewish organizations founded in America, that functioned on the ground in liberated Poland. President Harry Truman authorized it to be one of the principal American organizations to operate in Europe after the war.5 This decision was based mainly on the fact that from the start of its existence the JDC had been an apolitical organization whose work focused exclusively on providing charitable aid.6 Hence, for Truman and his [End Page 354] administration, the JDC was the obvious choice. The representatives of the communist authorities in Lublin were guided by similar considerations. It was important for them to obtain foreign aid...