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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 2. Agro-Joint [work in Russia 1919-1938]

[2.6. Agro-Joint activities going down by industrialization since 1930 - schools]

[1933: Jewish farmer settlements not attractive any more]

The growth of industry, on one hand, and the repeated disasters of Soviet agriculture, on the other, made agricultural settlement considerably less attractive to Russian Jews. Settlement was much lower in 1933; after 1934 no more claims are made of families settling on land in the Crimea, the Ukraine, or White Russia. JDC claimed that altogether 14,036 families had been settled in its (p.83)

colonies by 1934. There are some doubts as to the accuracy of the figure, but it can serve as a general indication of the extent of the colonization effort.

[Agro-Joint trade schools and training courses]

One other aspect of JDC work in Russia was of great importance in the history of Russian Jewry: the development of trade schools and training courses. There were several of these.

[Agro-Joint's trade schools - Odessa: Children's home becomes trade school - Agro-Joint schools become part of the Russian industrialization]

But the most interesting one was Evrabmol in Odessa. this had started as an orphans' home after World War I, under the directorship of P.M. Kaganovsky. It acquired land on the outskirts of Odessa and established a training farm. Later the home moved back into the city and became a technical school. The children, some of whom did not even know the names of their parents, were saved from life in the streets and the catacombs of Odessa and became useful citizens.

Beginning in the early 1920s Evrabmol was supported by JDC and became an eminently successful school; in l1929/30 it began to pay its own way by selling the products of its shops. It then became attached to the Commissariat (Ministry) of Heavy Industry and, with the benevolent help of the Odessa town soviet (municipality), continued to develop to the satisfaction of everyone concerned.

Evrabmol, two other institutions in Odessa, and schools and courses at Dnepropetrovsk, Nikolaev, and other places had some 8,580 students in 1930. These schools and courses, originally under the Commissariat of Education, were transferred to the industrial commissariats in the course of the five-year plan.

This meant that the Agro-Joint was playing a certain part in the absorption of Jewish youths into the swiftly growing industry, despite its failure to establish the industrialization program with significant American financial help. The attempt was made to direct the student toward heavy industry, mainly the metal industry, in such new trades as that of automobile mechanic. These were high-priority areas in Soviet industrialization, and had the Jews stuck to their traditional trades, their chances of partaking in the tremendous revolution that was going on would have diminished considerably.

Another factor has to be considered. In 1931 the Soviet government began a series of economic negotiations with Western governments. (p.84)

[Foreign technicians at the schools give motivation for pupils]

At the same time, foreign technicians came in in rather significant numbers, and the attitude toward technicians and experts generally was little short of adulation in Russia. Wage differentials between these experts and ordinary citizens grew swiftly, and Jewish trainees were encouraged to dream of becoming members of this favored class. The efforts of Agro-Joint to establish, maintain, and equip trade schools, apart from or in cooperation with the ORT schools, must be seen against that general background. Government encouragement and interest in these schools was very obvious, and, as industrialization proceeded, so did the hunger of Soviet industry for skilled workers. By the time the government took these schools over from the Agro-Joint in 1935, there were 42 of them, some operating at a very high level of training.

[Odessa: Vinchevsky Technical School - training in Kremenchug]

Two of these schools should be mentioned here. One was the Vinchevsky Technical School in Odessa, and the other was a special training course instituted in the town of Kremenchug. The Vinchevsky School was actually the continuation of one of the Jewish trade schools that had been set up during the czarist regime. The Soviets had taken over this school, and the Agro-Joint developed it into one of the most important technical schools in the Ukraine.

(End note 32: AJ 2, Rosen's letter, March 1936)

[Agro-Joint shops for Jewish lishentsy to get out of the banned status]

Also, in their shops the mutual aid societies trained artisans who were thus enabled to escape their lishentsy status and eventually to enter government factories. An interesting example of this is provided by the development in Georgia, in the Caucasus. There, Georgian Jews formed a mutual aid society in 1929, with an initial capital of 16 rubles (officially, $ 8). The Agro-Joint stepped in, and with its help 82 artels were organized by 1931, employing 2,568 persons, of whom 2,053 were Jews. The chief trades were knitting and needlework, reflecting the occupational structure of Georgian - but not just Georgian - Jewry.

(End note 33: AJ 20)

[Agro-Joint schools are factor for job changing and integration of Jews into Soviet industry]

In the course of its industrial activity, Agro-Joint made a conscious effort to direct Jews away from their traditional occupations. The production of lathes and other machinery at Evrabmol, the production of dental burrs at Kiev - these efforts were made with (p.85)

a clearly formulated aim of helping to change the occupational structure of Russian Jewry. Ultimately, however, the relative success of this occupational change depended on whether the Jews could be "fitted into the general structure of the economic and social life of the country."

(End note 34: AJ 2, Rosen's letter, March 1936)

This the government did, and it was the economic revolution of the five-year plan rather than any Jewish effort that enabled the Jews to be absorbed in the newly created industrial structure.

The Agro-Joint helped in this process, eased the transition, and spared many Jews a great deal of privation. But it must be recognized that it was not because of any accomplishment by the Agro-Joint that some 350,000 Jews became factory workers in the course of the first five-year plan. This fact was fully recognized by Rosen, and he was to draw certain conclusions from it.

[1934: Industrialization is fixed - Agro-Joint is less needed]

By 1934 Agro-Joint industrial work was completed. Soviet industry had become a giant, still rather unsteady on its huge feet, but a giant all the same. The help of a foreign organization dealing specifically with transitional problems could be dispensed with. The 644 shops of the aid societies were still employing 8,278 workers, and this included the 66 aided by Agro-Joint. These were taken over by the government in 1934.

At the same time, in October 1934, the Ukrainian Red Cross absorbed the medical societies under an agreement that insured equal treatment to the lishentsy. By that time the whole lishentsy problem had been solved, to all intents and purposes. Only some religious and older people (less than 5 % of the Jewish population) were still affected, and there was no longer any justification for maintaining a large administration and special institutions for these unfortunate people. Members of their families could supply them with the bare necessities of life, and though their position was far from pleasant, JDC's help no longer seemed necessary.

[1932: Agro-Joint's funds melt down by depression in the "USA" - death of Rosenwald on 6 Jan 1932]

In the meantime, as a result of the economic disaster that had struck America, subscribers found it harder and harder to honor their subscriptions. By 1932 the situation had become critical. It must be remembered that JDC's collections went down to a low of $ 385,000 in 1932, and budgets were cut most cruelly at a time (p.86)

when the need was overwhelming. Only the agricultural work in Russia, secured as it was by individual contractual subscriptions, continued. The society supplied its $ 1 million yearly and thus enabled Rosen to continue his work. This unique situation could not continue, and in 1932 AMSOJEFS found that it would have to cease payments.

[At the same time Stalin is laughing at capitalism in it's depression of bourse speculation].

The direct cause for this disaster was the death, on January 6, 1932, of Julius Rosenwald, whose wealth had been invested largely in stocks. The probate of his will was a very complicated affair, and the claims of tax collectors and creditors had to be settled before payments of AMSOJEFS could be expected. In fact, there was the real danger that with the devaluation of stocks, the estate would have difficulties in satisfying the demands of both creditors and tax people. Payments on the subscriptions to AMSOJEFS were out of the question. In this situation the leaders of JDC entrusted to Rosen the delicate task of negotiating with the Soviet government a new agreement, which would prelude the actual cash payment of any more money by American subscribers.

Rosen's trump card was the amount of ruble assets JDC had accumulated in Russia and which JDC had at least a theoretical right to take out in dollars.

[1930-1932: Stalin's regime does not need foreign organizations any more - restrictions]

But by 1932 the Russians were no longer as eager to negotiate with a foreign organization as they had been before. Rumblings against foreign organizations had been heard before, and as early as December 11, 1929, Grower had declared to JTA that "some minor people agitate against foreign organizations without any hope of success in responsible circles."

(End note 35: AJ 4)

These agitations turned out not to be so minor after all, and Diamanstein, leader of the Yevsektsia, had some very harsh things to say about the Agro-Joint at an OZET Congress in 1930. "Agro-Joint does not understand Soviet policy and does not want to understand it." He said that the Soviet people needed to utilize these organizations, especially as they had agreements with the Soviet government, but he added that the government authorities must supervise these organizations to insure that they were under the proper direction.

(End note 36: AJ 59, JTA [Jewish Telegraphic Agency] report, December 1930)

This was too much for Rosen. At the beginning of 1931 he wrote (p.87)

a very strong letter to COMZET about the active campaign against the Agro-Joint. To his complaint Rosen added a threat: "The people at the head of our organization have no desire whatsoever to impose our work on anybody and it is entirely out of the question for us to be in a position of a 'tolerated' organization."

(End note 37: AJ 11, 1/30/31 [30 January 1931])

The answer, signed by Smidovich, was sent after discussions with the government, and apparently the extremists were defeated. "The articles and speeches of private individuals", the COMZET letter of February 16, 1930, said, "do not in any way reflect the attitude of the government toward the work of the Agro-Joint."

While this was a clear repudiation of the position of the Communist Left, undercurrents in the party against the Agro-Joint grew stronger. In April 1931 Lubarsky was arrested and spent a month in prison before Rosen managed to get him out. In 1932 the Soviets were ready to reduce the Agro-Joint work in Russia by stages.

(End note 38: AJ 11, AJ 90)

[1932 appr.: JDC claims that SU regime has not fulfilled the agreement of 1929 - but there is more SU money in the Agro-Joint colonies than foreseen]

At first JDC gave some consideration to the idea of camouflaging their lack of ability to pay by suing the USSR for not having fulfilled the contract conditions, in accordance with an arbitration clause in the 1929 agreement. This clause was based on the principle of rebus sic stantibus: the agreement was held to have been violated by the government's having changed, by its policy of collectivization, the conditions under which the Agro-Joint conducted the work. Farm settlements in Russia would have been considerably less attractive in the eyes of Jewish subscribers in the United States had they known that their money would in fact go into the kolkhoz settlements. In the end, however, JDC refrained from any attempt to sue the Russians. The work was deemed to have succeeded after all, and the Russian government had certainly fulfilled the financial conditions; in fact, they had spent considerably more in rubles on Agro-Joint colonies than they had been bound by contract to do.

By 1933, $ 4,857,563 was actually paid on the subscriptions, of which the Rosenwald share amounted to about $ 3 million of the $ 5 million promised. The sum of $ 4,725,000 had actually been sent to Russia, and $ 2,475,000 was still to come under the original (p.88) eight-year agreement (1928 to 1935).

[14 April 1933: New agreement between JDC and the Soviet regime]

On April 14, 1933, Rosen sighed a new agreement with the Soviet government. The Soviets had given AMSOJEFS bonds for the money they had actually received, which they would ultimately have to redeem. Interest was also to be paid up to the end of the eight-year contract. They now accepted a part of these bonds and waived payment of interest in lieu of the money the society owed them. After that, part of the bonds for the money they had received from America still remained in the hands of AMSOJEFS. They now issued bonds for the $ 2,475,000 they had received through the new agreement, and thus left AMSOJEFS with $ 5,352,000 in Soviet bonds bearing a 5 % interest.

(End note 39:
The total amount of interest the Soviets would have had to pay on the $ 4,725,000 until the end of 1935 was $ 627,000. This they accepted as payment from AMSOJEFS. In addition, AMSOJEFS handed back to the Soviets Soviet bonds in the amount of $ 1,848,000 out of the $ 4,725,000 in bonds that the Soviets had given AMSOJEFS when they received the money from America. Together, these two sums came to $ 2,475,000 which AMSOJEFS owed the Soviet government. For these bonds and waiver of interest which was worth dollar payment, the Soviets issued new bonds ($ 2,475,000) which, together with the $ 2,877,000 in bonds that had remained in the hands of AMSOJEFS after the $ 1,848,000 had been paid, made for a total of $ 5,352,000 in Soviet bonds, which were partly repaid and partly returned by agreement by the end of 1940. The 1933 agreement was, of course, extremely favorable to AMSOJEFS).

at the same time an agreement was reached on the Agro-Joint assets in Russia. Assets worth 5.6 million rubles were handed over to the government, and the government in turn gave the Agro-Joint the equivalent in cash and credits. The Agro-Joint promised to use the money for intensive plantation programs, various kinds of training courses, administration, and other items.

The agreement was profitable to both sides. The Agro-Joint was relieved of the need to supply more cash, and the Russians obtained a firm legal hold over the Agro-Joint estates in their country, improved their financial arrangement with the society, and at the same time began the process of an orderly termination of the society's affairs in their country.

[Since 1933: Agro-Joint activities going down in Russia]

The end had clearly arrived. As we have seen, the possibilities of agricultural settlement in Russia were decreasing rapidly. Rosen claimed that in 1933 only 1,400 families were settled in the Crimea, but even this looked rather doubtful.

(End note 40: AJ 2, 4/14/34 [14 April 1934])

Jews now did not have to go to the Crimea in order to become small-scale farmers on the outskirts of villages and towns, but could do so wherever they lived. The Jewish economic position continued to improve, and the Agro-Joint and its operations seemed to be more and more superfluous.

[1931: Ukraine: Agro-Joint liquidated by industrialization]

In 1931 the Ukrainian work was liquidated, the Agro-Joint having simply been told that they had nothing more to do there. (p.89)

(End note 41: AJ 11, 4/30/31 [30 April 1931])

[1932-1934: Crimea: Agro-Joint experts on Jewish settlements]

In 1932-34, work was concentrated in the Crimea. Government supervision in all respects except the purely agroeconomic one was complete. Some of the assets of the Agro-Joint were  not, it s true, handed over: for example, the Jankoy tractor station and repair shop, buildings in Simferopol and Moscow, supplies, and commodities. Even after the termination of its actual settlement work in 1934, the Agro-Joint still maintained a large staff of experts who, with income from the existing assets and some very small sums in dollars, continued to advise the settlements about their agricultural production. The Jankoy station was one of the prototypes of the MTS tractor stations that were to provide tractor work for the kolkhozy later on. In other respects too, such as well-drilling and horticulture, Agro-Joint help was still significant.

But Rosen's absences from Russia grew longer and longer, and the work was slowly reduced to a minimum.

[1937: Agro-Joint in Russia is going down]

In 1937 the Agro-Joint still had 6 million rubles' worth of assets, but its staff (which at the peak of colonization numbered some 3,000 employees) had dwindled to about 100.

The fact that the Agro-Joint's presence was becoming undesirable in 1937/8 was made very evident. This was the time of the purges, and it was unthinkable that a foreign organization like the Agro-Joint would be allowed to carry on much longer. Smidovich died in 1935 and was succeeded by a Stalinist bureaucrat named Chuchkaieff. The end was near.

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