Rescue, Relief and Renewal: Exhibit puts human face on the Joint in Poland

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Since 1914, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has assisted Jews worldwide to weather the storms of war, natural disasters, economic downturns, anti-Semitism, political upheavals and other crises.

A new exhibition of photographs documenting the JDC’s century-old efforts in one nation, Poland, sheds light on the breadth of work the organization has undertaken.

Child at a JDC summer camp shows his concentration camp tattoo, 1947

“Rescue, Relief and Renewal: 100 Years of the Joint in Poland” opens Sunday, March 6 at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

Featuring some 80 archival images, the exhibit offers more than a few surprises, said curator Anna Sommer Schneider, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization. The traveling exhibit had its debut at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow in October 2014.

Most surprising to Sommer Schneider — and likely many others viewing the pictures for the first time — was seeing the rich variety of Jewish experiences in Poland before World War II. Images range from the traditional Hassidim and Orthodox families in villages, to the educated and secular Jews of large urban centers such as Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Lublin, who often made up around 30 to 40 percent of their cities’ populations.

Also striking to Sommer Schneider, who began culling the JDC’s archives a decade ago as a graduate student in Jewish studies at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, were the political affiliations of Poland’s prewar Jews, who aligned themselves with causes that ran the gamut, including Zionist, anti-Zionist, bundist, and socialist.

Transporting supplies in Warsaw, 1946-47

“Many people have a distorted view of [prewar] Jewish life in Poland,” said Sommer Schneider, a view that sees Polish Jews through the narrow prisms of early 20th-century poverty-stricken peasant and then Holocaust victim.

Indeed, while more than 90 percent of the approximately 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland before the outbreak of World War II perished as a result of the Shoah, several hundred thousand Jews returned or migrated to Poland after the Holocaust, Sommer Schneider said. This is when the JDC performed some of its most important work, which is a major component of the photo exhibit.

Postwar images by the celebrated Swiss photographer Jean Mohr show participants at a JDC-sponsored community seder in Wroclaw, Poland, and davening in a synagogue. For Linda Levi, the JDC’s director of global archives, one of the most stirring photos is a 1947 picture of a boy showing off his tattooed concentration-camp numbers to two other children at a JDC-sponsored summer camp in Pieszyce, Poland.

The collection of photos not only shows “artistic merit,” said Levi, who worked closely with Sommer Schneider to review thousands of images for the exhibit, “but they tell a story [of Jewish life in Poland] in a very poignant way.”

That story is vast and complex, noted Sommer Schneider, and involves almost every facet of 20th-century Jewish history: death and destruction during both world wars, massive migrations to and from Poland following the Holocaust, and the nation’s takeover by Soviet Communist-backed authorities.

JDC social worker with a client in Brest, 1926

But it also entails happier times: students studying at schools, communities observing holiday festivities, and adults receiving vocational training — all activities sponsored by the JDC.

The bottom line for 38-year-old Sommer Schneider, who grew up in the town adjacent to Auschwitz and only as an adult learned about her own Jewish background, is that “Jewish life did not end in 1945.” 

Even when Communists banned the JDC from operating officially in Poland for much of the 1950s, said Jakub Nowakowski, director of the Galicia Jewish Museum, the JDC was able to use diplomatic back channels to assist the remaining tens of thousands of Jews in the country who had not fled to Israel, the United States or other nations.

“Rescue, Relief and Renewal” is divided into sections showing the JDC’s major focuses in Poland: vocational training, education, health care, children and orphans, elderly assistance, Yiddishkeit, and refugees (immigration and victims of persecution).

The exhibit opens March 6 with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. that includes live music and a discussion about the JDC’s work in Poland. Panelists include Sommer Schneider, Levi, Nowakowski, and longtime JDC board member and local Jewish community leader Harold Zlot.

The exhibit, Zlot said, enables American Jews and others to become more familiar with the scope of the JDC’s work in Poland and in Jewish communities across the globe.

“Rescue, Relief and Renewal” opens Sunday, March 6 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.