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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)

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

[2.11. Final discussion about the sense of the Agro-Joint work and the Jewish colonies in Russia]

[1940: Baerwald's question where the Jewish colonies are]

As to the colonies, they [the members of Agro-Joint after 1937] seemed to have suffered a great deal under the impact of the terror. Equally important in their lack of success was the pull of the towns and their growing industries. Baerwald stated in 1940 that "Weizmann says (that) Russian colonization has not proved a success. Most people have left (the) colonies as he always said they would. Have you any definite news or views on numbers still remaining in (the) colonies?"

(End note 53: AJ 25, 2/20/40 [20 February 1940])

There was no answer. Weizmann apparently had been right. Then the flood came, and the Jewish colonies were wiped off the face of the earth by Hitler's hordes.

[Addition: There were Stalin deportations 1939-1941 and there was the Big Flight before in 1941 to the inner of the Soviet Union so many Jews could be saved, about 1 mio. minimum].

[Rosen: Without Agro-Joint Jewry in Russia would have perished]

Evaluation of the Agro-Joint work presents a very complicated problem. Rosen's dictum was that if JDC had not turned to colonization work, great numbers of Russian Jews "would undoubtedly (p.99)

have literally perished. While at present the government would undoubtedly continue the work, should the Agro-Joint terminate, it would not have started it without our initiative and our actually originating it."

(End note 54: AJ 66, 10/8/31 [8 October 1931])

The first part of the statement is probably true as regards those 10,000 or 12,000 families settled by the Agro-Joint before the relative improvement of conditions in the early 1930s. The second part is more doubtful. But there is no doubt that tens of thousands of Jews were saved from economic disaster by being settled on the land. This itself enabled the Agro-Joint to do its so-called "non-Agro" work, and that alleviated conditions all over the former Pale of Settlement.

[Balance: Results of Agro-Joint work]

The medical institutions, the trade schools, the various kassas and aid societies - they were all by-products of the colonies, and they were a blessing to hundreds of thousands of human beings in a very difficult situation. The very presence of an American Jewish organization was of great value and should not be underestimated.

The reinstatement of the Jewish lishentsy in June 1930, the change in attitude toward the mutual aid societies, the opportunities for help to the Zionist pioneers, on one hand, and Orthodox rabbis and some of their followers on the other, the hundreds that were enabled to leave Russia because of Rosen's intervention - all these must be taken into account.

[Motives of motivation for supporting the Agro-Joint work]

What were the motivations of the people who supported this work - apart from their having been influenced by the truly great personality of Rosen? They were mostly men of rather limited social and political vision, but of great  sincerity and considerable wealth. They were rarely in the mood for philosophizing, but William Rosenwald's account of his father's motivation contains a most interesting philosophy:

He believed that Jews, given an opportunity to become productive, self-supporting citizens in their native lands, would succeed. He wanted to show that Jews can earn their livelihood by the sweat of their brows. He believed that emigration could not solve the (p.100)

mass problem of Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. So he welcomed the opportunity afforded in Soviet Russia for Jews to prove that they could be self-supporting farmers and industrial workers on a large scale.

These achievements, under Rosen's guidance, were thought of as permanent improvements, not palliative measures.

(End note 55: AJ 62a, February 1938)

Several attitudes were inextricably interwoven in this statement by Rosenwald: the feeling of inferiority of the Western Jew toward his surroundings, contained

-- in the hope that the Jews could be just as good as others, given the opportunity (not that they were as good, but that they would have to prove they were, because prima facie they were not);
-- the belief that Eastern and Central European Jews should stay where they were, especially since there was no practical possibility for them to go anywhere els;
-- and the inherent romanticism of a wealthy American Jew cooperating with the Soviet authorities in turning the Jew into a farmer and peasant.

[And the SU government lets help and gets it's profit by the help].

19 century liberalism and Jewish Reform and a great deal of goodwill cooperated to produce this attitude.

[Anti-Zionism as a pre-condition for Agro-Joint's existence in Russia]

Of course, anti-Zionism entered the field as well. Lessing Rosenwald, as we have seen, was not opposed to a Jewish state in Biro-Bidjan - that would be a Bolshevik creation owing allegiance to the Soviet Union, and would not embarrass a Western Jew politically. But Zionism was different, and "should a national homeland be established in Palestine, I believe it would be one of the greatest catastrophes that could possibly happen."

(End note 56: Executive Committee, 9/20/38 [20 September 1938])

Dr. Maurice B. Hexter, a moderate supporter of JDC who was a non-Zionist and worked with the Jewish Agency in the upbuilding of Palestine in the 1930s, expressed the opinion that "it would be an inhuman blunder to arouse hopes in the breasts of our unfortunate brethren, to imply and to state that Palestine can solve their entire problems, even if one has faith (I for one do not have it) in the astronomic predictions of the absorptive capacity of either Palestine as a whole, or of the portion proposed for the Jewish state under the partition. There would still remain hundreds of thousands (p.101)

who would not be taken care of and for whom other outlets must be sought."

(End note 57: Palestine Post, 3/3/38 [3 March 1938])

Warburg and Baerwald did not share the extreme anti-Zionism of Lessing Rosenwald; the cooperated with Weizmann of the Jewish Agency, whom they admired and in a way feared. But they were equally opposed to the radical nationalism of the majority of the Zionist movement. Besides, they too could not see how little Palestine could solve the problem of East European Jewry. Agro-Joint work at least helped solve the Russian Jews' economic problem. It might be a beacon to follow, and Polish Jews might perhaps go the same route.

They were all subject to the limitation that Rosen himself labored under, when he declared that "there is no specific Jewish problem in Russia anymore."

(End note 58: AJ - uncatalogued materials; file: Russia, settlement of emigrants, 1935, draft verbatim notes of informal meeting, 6/15/35 [15 June 1935], Rosen's speech, p.3)

[The main thing: Economic help to self-help]

They all saw Russian Jewry in purely economic terms. Even in those terms they only saw the present, and failed to consider the implications inherent in Soviet economic development. With the pull of the cities and the lack of an ideological counterpull, the town-bound tradition of the Jews would induce them to abandon agricultural areas as long as there was no compelling economic reason to remain. only an insignificant proportion at best would remain on the land surrounded by farmers of other nationalities. This would probably have been true even had there been no German invasion [and of the NS allies]. But the point is that Jewish existence did not consist solely of economic factors, important as these were.

When Warburg was asked to comment on the persecution of rabbis in the Soviet Union, he answered that while he deeply deplored this situation, one must not forget that the Soviet government was helping the Jews get back on their feet economically. The philanthropist saw the problem almost solely in terms of bread and butter. The faith of the nation, its cultural and political freedom, its past values and future hopes - whether Orthodox or secular, liberal or Zionist - were of marginal concern. The Reform Jew wanted to break down the barriers between the Jew and his neighbor, whereas the Russian Jews by and large clung to certain vestiges of separateness. (p.102)

[Jewish development away from industry to government jobs]

In the end, the breakdown of barriers did not succeed. Jews left not only agriculture but also, to an ever-increasing extent, factory work as well. They concentrated in the Commissariats of Trade and Commerce, in the professions, in the bureaucracies of the industrial establishment and their accounting departments.

[The question: Was Agro-Joint worth the money?]

In the long run the Agro-Joint work in Russia brought few results. What of the short run?  Was it worth spending $ 16 million between 1924 and 1938 for that purpose?

(End note 59: AJ 2, reports, résumé by M.A. Leavitt, 3/20/45 [20 March 1945])

A very good case can be made that this was not only good, but essential. Others have pointed out that this money could have been used in Palestine to better purpose, but what better purpose was there than saving Jews from hunger? Was it, after all, possible to take the Jews out of Russia and send them to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s? If not, what should Jewish philanthropists have done with them? There was certainly a case to be made, then and later, for concentrating all efforts solely on Palestine. But not very many, even in the Zionist camp, dared to put a Palestine-centered demand quite as exclusively as that. Rosen settled 60,000 Jews on the land. This was considerably more than the agricultural settlement in Palestine had achieved in the comparable period, working without government help and with less expertise than Rosen's team could command.

[Balance: Figures of Jewish settlements by Agro-Joint]

The final results of the colonization work were themselves rather unclear. How many families did the Agro-Joint settle in Russia? The figure is apparently close to 60,000 persons. The estimates vary between 14,000 to 20,000 families, but it is reasonably certain that not more than 14,000 families remained on the land by 1938, probably considerably less than that. Kahn's estimate was that the total Jewish farming population in 1941 amounted to some 160,000 persons and that some 70,000 more were connected to the land by having vegetable plots on the outskirts of towns and villages. It seems to us that of these, some 50,000 to 60,000 had been settled by the Agro-Joint.

(End note 60: Based on AJ 2, reports, résumé by B. Hahn, 10/31/44 [31th October 1944]; ibid., statement of Russian activities, 3/16/34 [16 March 1934]; file 35a, report by M.C. Troper, 12/10/36 [10 December 1936])

[Crimea 1934: Foundation of big Jewish settlements]

In about 1934 a consolidation of the tracts settled by the Jewish settlers in the Crimea took place. Villages were united under a common administration, and five autonomous Jewish districts (p. 103)

were founded (Freidorf in February 1931, Stalindorf in June 1930, Kalinindorf in March 1937, New Zlatopol in 1929, and Larindorf in January 1935).


[Last hope: Opening of the documents]

This was the sum total of the work that ended in the eviction of the Agro-Joint and in the arrest and death of most, possibly all, of its Russian Jewish officials. There were achievements and there were disasters. The full story will have to wait until the Agro-Joint files in Russia are opened to scholarly inspection at some future date.


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