War, pogroms, and famine left Jews in the Ukraine and Crimea starving and destitute. JDC worked with the American Relief Association (1921-1923) to alleviate these conditions. Through Agro-Joint (1924-1938), it developed Jewish agricultural and industrial programs. Beyond Relief highlights this work with photographs from JDC's Archives and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research's Joseph A. Rosen Collection.
Over 2,000 pogroms took place in the Ukraine in the years after the Russian Revolution; an estimated 150,000 Jews were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of children were left without parents, or homes. In Uman, Kiev District, a JDC-funded program fed 850 children and clothed 700. Ukraine, 1923, NY_00472.
A soup kitchen in Aleksandrovsk (later Zaporozhye) subsidized by JDC. Ukraine, 1922, NY_00396.
In October 1921, postal connections between Russia and the US were reestablished. ARA cleared the way for $10 food packages to be purchased in America and sent to individuals in famine-struck areas of the Soviet Union. JDC quickly began gathering subscriptions from American Jews for their needy relatives and friends. By December 1922, around $8 million worth of sugar, rice, vegetable oil, tea, flour, and canned milk had been shipped. As ARA required, half the packages went to non-Jews. Clients lined up to receive their packages in JDC’s warehouse in Kremenchug. Ukraine, c. 1922, NY_00446.
Feeding under ARA was limited to one meal a day, enough to prevent starvation, but not provide sufficient nutrition. JDC saw to it that Jewish children’s institutions had the supplementary amounts needed. JDC paid for the care of these orphans, through support of children’s homes. This orphanage in Zhabokrich, Vinnitsa District, consisted of two rooms in a private house. Ukraine, c. 1923, NY_00473.
Boris Bogen, JDC’s Director for Russian Relief, wrote in 1923 that Ekaterinoslav (later Dnepropetrovsk), center of the South Russian coal industry before the Revolution, was “absolutely at a standstill.” In the first four months alone, JDC provided over 300 carloads of coal to the general population and local social service institutions. Ukraine, c. 1923, NY_00416.
Soviet era constraints on religious observance limited JDC’s role. Where possible however, assistance was given to support rabbis and religious groups. JDC subsidized the purchase of flour for the baking of matzah so that needy Jews in the Ukraine could celebrate Passover in the midst of great hardship. Distributing matzah from a Kharkov warehouse, Ukraine, c. 1923, NY_00419.
JDC gave priority to children and mothers. It organized and subsidized baby health and milk stations in the ten cities and towns most impacted by pogroms. Community-based organizations, like this children’s polyclinic in Vinnitsa, were enlisted to operate facilities. Ukraine, c.1923,NY_00465.
Before World War I, the Jewish Community of Ekaterinoslav independently operated a hospital, home for the elderly, two orphanages and 21 schools. After the devastation of the war and the Revolution, JDC helped re-establish and expand these services. A Jewish polyclinic, Ekaterinoslav District. Ukraine, 1923, NY_00410.
One of JDC’s first approaches towards reconstruction in the Ukraine was establishing cooperative savings and loan societies for Jews living in cities and towns. This work was done in cooperation with the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). Attending the first national conference of these associations in Kharkov, were Boris Bogen, JDC’s Supervisor for Russian Relief, and Dr. Joseph Rosen, its Reconstruction Supervisor (front, respectively fourth and fifth from left). Ukraine, 1923, NY_00544.
Soviet government policies discouraged work in trade, and permitted Jews (previously blocked from owning land) to take up farming. A portion of JDC’s Russian reconstruction funds helped restore existing agricultural colonies (affecting 10,000 families) and assisted thousands of would-be settlers. JDC’s early colony work involved collaboration with ORT (Society for the Promotion of Handicraft and Agricultural Work among Russian Jews) and the Russian-based EKOPO (Yidezkom). In spring 1923, these Jewish colonists met with representatives of the three supporting organizations. Crimea, 1923, NY_00864.
Agro-Joint drew on the expertise of engineers, agronomists, horticulturists, and animal husbandry experts to help organize colonies. At its peak, its staff numbered close to 3,000. Agro-Joint advisors helped settlers select land from potential sites, then survey and prepare the fields for planting prior to their actual move. Crimea, c. 1925, NY_00866.
Settlers first lived in dilapidated houses, barns, or dugouts while they constructed permanent homes. These colonists began their new lives in crude temporary barracks, where the only amenity was the samovar they brought with them. Crimea, Russia, c. 1926, NY_00847.
Weakened from years of privation and unaccustomed to their new way of life, Jewish settlers struggled in the beginning but with Agro-Joint and government help, did gain a foothold. Colonists stand proudly in the communal wheat fields of the Khaklay settlement, Jankoy District. Crimea, mid-1920’s, NY_42897 (from YIVO).
Despite the considerable hardship involved, there were many more applicants than opportunities for settlement life. Agro-Joint aided newcomers to farming from all walks of life, including former clerks, peddlers, teachers, and rabbis. Ukraine, c. 1925, NY_00786.
Trained in farming techniques like wheat threshing, men and women alike became capable farmers. A period caption read, “Women work alongside of the men everywhere and sometimes harder than the men.” Crimea, c. 1930, NY_00878.
Most colonies included settlers from diverse parts of the former Russian Empire. A few, though, were comprised of distinct groups, such as the Caucasian Mountain Jews. These women from the Caucasus settled in Jankoy. Like many new settlers, they started out living in an earthen hut. Crimea, 1929, NY_42869 (from YIVO).
Barges like these brought logs from Kherson to colonies as far as 1,000 miles to the south. Timber was used sparingly, for doors and window frames. Ukraine, 1925, NY_43001 (from YIVO).
The colonies were chiefly built from the material close at hand. Mud churned with bare feet, then kneaded with straw, was molded into bricks for the Ukrainian colonies. Those in Crimea were made chiefly from the soft, porous sea shell-studded stones that littered the ground. At Oif Lebung (Rebirth) in the Kolay District, as in most colonies, construction was done communally. Ukraine, 1920’s, NY_43328 (from YIVO).
By pooling their efforts, newly adjusting colonists increased their chances of success. Settlers, aged 2 to 70 pose with their newly delivered wood at Novy Put (New Path) colony in the Krivoy Rog District. Ukraine, c. 1925, NY_00777.
Taking a lunch break from field work at a new agricultural colony in the Kherson District. Most meals were prepared in a clay field oven built on the spot. Ukraine, c. 1925, NY_00857.
Agro-Joint helped launch dozens of cheese-making cooperatives in Jewish settlements. It supplied equipment for hygienic production. Experts from Switzerland trained colonists in how to make Swiss cheese. The cooperatives sold their cheese through Government export trusts to outside markets as far away as Turkey. Novaya Zaria Colony’s cheese-making factory in the Biuk Onlar region. Crimea, 1931, NY_43519 (from YIVO).
Most colonies were built on abandoned and undeveloped land, untamed by plows. To help ease settlement on such hard ground, Agro-Joint acquired thousands of modern American tractors for the new colonies. Skilled operators were brought in to train settlers in their use. Although tractors were not owned by individual families, they were much appreciated. Ukraine, c. 1925, NY_00768.
Agro-Joint agronomists introduced diversification of crops to avert further food shortages and improve productivity in the colonies. American corn was used as a partial replacement for wheat, the main subsistence crop in the Ukraine. Corn had a longer planting season and greater resistance to the drought-prone climate of “snowless winters and rainless summers.” Unlike wheat, it could be planted in separate rows and weeded; it required a fifth as much seed for equal caloric food value; and its stalks could be used for cattle fodder. Members of an Odessa colony experimenting with corn. Ukraine, 1928, NY_43878 (from YIVO).
Depending on local conditions, new crops and animals were introduced. In the Odessa region, vegetables were grown; in Eupatoria, dairy cows and chickens were brought in and milk, cheese, and egg production taught. In Crimea’s steppes and sandy wastes, colonists were taught how to cultivate orchards and vineyards. Individual families were allowed to grow their own. These developments helped settlers raise their income significantly. An elderly couple in the Poltavtsy Colony examined their grape vines. Ukraine, late 1920’s, NY_43380 (from YIVO).
After initial attempts to collectivize even livestock, individual families were allowed to keep a few sheep, two cows, and up to 100 chickens. These were provisioned through Agro-Joint and paid for with interest-free loans. Colonists in Krivoy Rog raised Leghorns, a breed of chickens unrivalled in egg production. Ukraine, c. 1934, NY_43566 (from YIVO).
As soon as Jewish colonies were established, settlers wanted education for their children. Agro-Joint- supported schools had Jewish teachers and classes taught in Yiddish, the official language of the colonies. Russian and Ukrainian language classes were introduced in the higher grades. Colonists in the Krivoy Rog district proudly celebrated the cornerstone laying for a new school. Ukraine, 1927, NY_43352 (from YIVO).
Although government policy did not outlaw religion in the Soviet Union, its observance and outside cultural influence was truncated. Colonists prayed together in Tagancha, in the Krivoy Rog district. Ukraine, c. 1929, NY_00652.
Food, shelter, and attendant care for poor elderly Jews were provided by local relief societies, as in Aleksandria, with funds from Agro-Joint. Ukraine, mid-1920’s, NY_42263 (from YIVO).
One such organization was the Poltava Relief Committee, organized in 1923, which received funds directly from JDC until Agro-Joint took over that role. Ukraine, c. 1925, NY_00461.
The Paul Nathan Hospital in the Smidovitch settlement, Larindorf, was a well-equipped and staffed facility. Crimea, c. 1925, NY_00674.
Agro-Joint organized programs on the principal of self-sufficiency and mutual support as far as possible. The shops it set up to train skilled workers produced the medical equipment used by its health clinics. Dental equipment made in a Kiev school-factory provided clinics with tools and financed medical aid for Jewish déclassés. Children in Odessa got check-ups through this ambulatory dental program. Ukraine, c. 1925, NY_00456.
Like most of Agro-Joint's medical institutions, this hospital in Dnepropetrovsk had been taken over by the Commissariat of Public Health and Russian Red Cross by the fall of 1934. An agreement insured equal treatment to the remaining déclassés. Ukraine, c. 1929, NY_42848 (from YIVO).
Agro-Joint maintained three agricultural schools in the settlement regions. Those who studied became well-trained agronomists. They later served throughout the settlements, improving colonists’ lives with guidance on new types of crops, land allotment, village construction, advanced well drilling, irrigation, livestock breeding, village electrification, and food processing. The Agro-Joint school in Chebotarka. Crimea, c. 1930, NY_00799.
Agro-Joint introduced a small fleet of modern tractors right from the start and continued to bring in mechanized equipment. This enabled colonists to complete farm work faster, maximize crop yield, and reduce the hard labor involved. At Novo-Poltavka, colonists harvested, threshed, and winnowed their grain with the significant help of a motorized combine. Ukraine, c. 1929, NY_44540 (from YIVO).
The centrally located district of Jankoy, a site for tractor repair workshops, became Agro-Joint’s main base for farm equipment in 1929. Its technicians watched over the smooth functioning of some 1,000 tractors, 100 combines, 500 motorized wells, and 100 irrigation pumps in the colonies. Jankoy shops eventually manufactured machine parts, as well as wooden doors and windows, for colony buildings. Thousands trained there, to increase the work force in these skills. Courses were broadened to include grape cultivation, cheese-making, and winter home industries. By 1937, the plant employed 664 people. Crimea, 1929, A. Buler, NY_42873 (from YIVO).
Winter made most farming activities impossible. Colonists turned to light industry indoors like knitting, sewing, and glass blowing. A knitting cooperative in one of the colonies. Crimea, c. 1930, NY_42811 (from YIVO).
With electrification of the colonies, farm machinery, light, and radio became accessible. Agro-Joint funded new power lines and stations for colonies. Outdoor field work utilized modern equipment and indoor work was no longer dependent on daylight. In the Jankoy District’s “Zavety Lenina” (Commandments of Lenin) commune, sheep sheering was one of many activities improved by electricity. Crimea, early 1930’s, NY_42886 (from YIVO).
One crucial advance Agro-Joint brought to agricultural development in the Soviet Union was an increased, reliable flow of water. Electrification, irrigation, and other methods for harnessing water carried out throughout the semi-arid lands of Crimea, and in the Krivoy Rog and Kherson districts of the Ukraine, opened up new areas to cultivation. The Kamenka Dam project irrigated some 1,500 acres in the Krivoy Rog District. Ukraine, c. 1935, NY_00740.
Hand-made wells were labor intensive to dig, and couldn’t provide sufficient irrigation. Agro-Joint drilled for water and built artesian wells with motors to pump it out continuously. Irrigation dramatically reduced the acreage needed to sustain a family from forty-five acres (dry land needed) to around six. While looking for water in the Saki District, Agro-Joint engineers discovered a previously unknown underground stream that opened up large, new territories for settlement. The Artesian well at this pumping station was one of 47 built to pipe this new source of water into distant fields. Crimea, 1934, NY_00691.
Stalin used Ukrainian grain to finance the rapid development of industry in the Soviet Union for several years, beginning in 1929. Forced to sell increasing portions of their crops to the government at fixed, low prices, collective farmers could not feed their own families until they met government quotas. Millions starved in the resulting famine of 1932-1933. Through Agro-Joint, Jewish crops from the Crimea provided some relief to colonists in the Ukraine. Like all Ukrainian farmers, colonists from Chemerinsk bringing grain to the nearest Krivoy Rog government collecting station had no idea what was coming. Ukraine, c. 1929, NY_00655.
"Yevrabmol" (Jewish Worker Youth) in Odessa, was one of many Agro-Joint-financed trade schools providing orphaned youth the chance to develop into skilled, self-sufficient professionals. In 1930,Yevrabmol became a factory school for industrial apprenticeships, producing lathes and other previously-imported machinery. These eager young men and women students made tools in a Yevrabmol workshop. Ukraine, 1934, NY_43859 (from YIVO).
Industrial training schools helped young Jews to achieve financial stability while securing their places in Soviet society. By 1932, more than half of the USSR’s 2.7 million Jews earned their income from factory work. A mechanized shoemaking program in Kiev included this class in the Ukrainian language. Ukraine, early 1930’s, NY_00550.
Preparatory classes for new students were attached to the already well-equipped Agro-Joint technical schools in large cities, like Odessa and Kiev. This harness-making class in Kiev was one of many designed to turn declassed poor Jews into skilled workers. Ukraine, c. 1928, M. Z. Tashker, NY_00541.
Living accommodations were difficult to come by in big cities, so Agro-Joint provided free dormitories to students attending the factory schools. Having grown up in a time of painful disorder, the relative normalcy of communal dormitory life may have been as valuable for students as the professional training they received. At the Ratmansky School Factory in Kiev, where 98% of the students were “out-of-towners,” the dormitory housed around 350. Ukraine, early 1930’s, NY_43278 (from YIVO).
Electrification increased the need for workers skilled in using motorized equipment and schools to train them. Agro-Joint introduced dental production to the Soviet Union. Learning such intricate skills gave these students in a Kiev factory school the means for financial security in a society focused on industry. By 1935, when the government took over Agro-Joint’s factory schools, there were 42 of them. Ukraine, c. 1933-35, NY_00558.
In 1934, Joseph Rosen put Agro-Joint’s first decade in context: "Our people in Russia were simply caught between the milestones [millstones?] of history and were confronted by a dilemma, - either to be crushed and turned into historical dust, or to extricate themselves by a determined effort …, no matter how painful and tortuous this process should prove to be....The Jewish masses in Russia were crying for help, and the leaders of [JDC] answered this call, being fully aware of the difficulties, drawbacks, and risks of the enterprise." The most heart-breaking events were yet to come. Rosen (center) with IKOR colonists. Crimea, 1928, NY_00896.
The early enthusiasm for Agro-Joint was ultimately replaced by grim and painful disillusionment. In 1937-1938, hundreds of Agro-Joint officials, agronomists, colonists, and physicians were arrested for “counter-revolutionary activities;” many were executed or died in prison. Six attendees at this 1927 Agro-Joint conference in Moscow, would be killed during the Great Terror for “political crimes”: among them, Agro-Joint’s Medical Director, Dr. Zinovy Serebryanny [front, first left]; its Industrial Department Director, Ezekiel Grower [front, third left], and its Chief Agronomist and Assistant Director, Samuil Lubarsky [front, second right]. Russia, 1927, NY_43644 (from YIVO).