Words and pictures tell the JDC’s story
Edison author scours archives for history of iconic rescue group
From the desperate plea quoted in its title, I Live. Send Help — taken from a cable sent by Jews in Warsaw, Poland, in July 1945 — to the joy embodied in the final photo, of young Cubans performing the Havdala ceremony in Havana in 2009, a new book about American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee covers a century of Jewish torment and triumph.
I Live. Send Help also covers something unprecedented in Jewish history: the formation of a unified organization that brought together Orthodox, Reform, and secular Jews with the shared goal of assisting those in trouble around the world, and strengthening the Jewish community.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison, who compiled and wrote the text of the book, said it involved 11 months of searching for and selecting images and documents in the JDC’s New York City archives. Working with JDC Archives director Linda Levi and her team, Ukraincik hunted down iconic items — like photos of refugees and war orphans — and then added many much less familiar ones that fill out the story.
More than just a history of the JDC, the book seeks to be a history of the Jewish people in the past century. “This is who you are as a Jew,” Ukraincik said, “whether from the U.S. or Guatemala or South Africa.
“I’d often get a feeling in my kishkes that there must be a picture — or some record — of a particular event, and then we’d find it,” she recalled.
Featured in one of the first pages is a document that helped give rise to the JDC enterprise: The Western Union cablegram sent by Robert Morgenthau, United States ambassador to the Ottoman-ruled Palestine, to New York philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff on August 31, 1914. It reads: “PALESTINIAN JEWS FACING TERRIBLE CRISIS BELLIGERENT COUNTRIES STOPPING THEIR ASSISTANCE.” In less than a month, $50,000 was raised for their aid from people of all denominations across the country.
In New York in November of that year, the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers was formed. The Jews of America stepped up to help their brethren in what author David Bezmozgis, in the book’s prologue, calls “this fraternal interdependence” of world Jewry.
The JDC went into action to help Jews caught up in the violence that would become World War I; it would go on to assist people in World War II and conflicts that followed, as well as those struggling to survive peacetime poverty and oppression, and to help Israel become a thriving state. It also steps in where few or no Jews are involved, like after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, or when the Philippines were hit by Typhoon Haiyan last year.
Ukraincik said working on the book satisfied a hunger for her. “It helped me fill in parts of my own history, if not specifically what happened to members of our family then to people who lived lives parallel to theirs,” she said. “It was a wonderful, very emotional experience.” (She noted in an aside, that despite their name, her husband’s family is from Croatia. She and her husband have three sons.)
She also brought a deep connection to the task. “My family was always very involved in the community. I knew that I’d work in the Jewish world,” she said. As things turned out, she went to work at the JDC on a fellowship and stayed for 11 years. She came back years later to do research in its massive archives, and then agreed to write the book.
The archive proved “an amazing resource,” Ukraincik said, reflecting the unifying role of the JDC. “It was established,” she pointed out, “when there were no federations. It was pluralistic and diverse when other organizations were not, with a core of Jewish values and reflecting the community’s priorities.”
So much has changed since 1914, much of it for the better, she pointed out, but the need for help remains. “The JDC works with such a diverse array of partners,” Ukraincik said, “it can reverberate with the needs of the community as they evolve.”
The photographs from the book, together with films and memorabilia, will be featured in an exhibition at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan from June 13 to Sept. 21.