A Love Letter to Artifacts: The Treasures Housed in JDC’s Archives

For JDC archivist Abra Cohen, objects like a DP camp tallit or a scrapbook from wartime Shanghai help tell the story of JDC's impact since 1914.

By Abra Cohen - JDC Archivist | January 12, 2021

This wool tallit was distributed by JDC at the displaced persons camp (DP) in Kassel, Germany, c. 1945-1947.

If JDC is considered the “best-kept secret” of the Jewish world, then it’s safe to say that far fewer people know about its Archives. With over three miles of digitized documents, 150,000 photographs, and 3,600 audio and video recordings documenting JDC activity in more than 90 countries dating from 1914 to today, the JDC Archives is an extraordinary treasure for the Jewish world. 

Abra Cohen

My favorite collection in the Archives is that of artifacts and ephemera, which contains close to 1,000 works ranging from posters and illuminated records to precious artwork and gifts from Jewish communities around the world.  

The collection began in 2014 when, in the process of curating JDC’s centennial exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, it became evident that including objects was instrumental in illustrating and bringing to life JDC’s efforts and impact over the years. Given the visual and dynamic nature of these items, the collection helps to enrich and complement the JDC Archives’ photograph and text holdings. Bureaucratic correspondence and reports come alive when partnered with this wide range of mixed-media objects that reflect the social fabric of global communities and the humanitarian response to monumental historical events.

Whether in ripped pages, worn edges, threadbare cloth, or tarnished metal, the objects, albums, and textiles in the JDC Archives Artifacts & Ephemera Collection have tales to tell. 

The American historian Stephen Ambrose wrote: “Nearly every artifact has a story connected to it, whether it be a hole in a helmet or a belt that a medic carried around with him as he treated the wounded on the beach.” Whether in ripped pages, worn edges, threadbare cloth, or tarnished metal, the objects, albums, and textiles in the JDC Archives Artifacts & Ephemera Collection have tales to tell of JDC history and the experience of JDC aid recipients.

Trench Art

Take for example a cask found in the Archives with a mark on the bottom reading “RhMF.” After conducting research, we gleaned that the mark was an abbreviation for Rheinische Munitionsfabrik, a munitions factory in Dusseldorf, Germany. Instantly, this cylindrical brass holder of unknown provenance was transformed into a World War I cartridge case with a story to tell. 

Raphael Avraham Shalem, Decorated shell casing
Palestine, May 1915, brass.

During World War I, the vestiges of war were converted into “trench art.” As the first major industrialized conflict, World War I produced a surplus of raw materials and intense psychological trauma. The construction of art using war debris provided mental R&R for soldiers and helped to both fill and pass the time for prisoners of war and civilians alike. A common type of trench art was made from shell cases. Meant to be collected and sent back for reloading, they often never made it and instead emerged as a popular memento that sparked a cottage industry. This shell case was decorated by Raphael Avraham Shalem (born 1888), a student at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem from 1913-1918. Engraved with an image of the Western Wall on one side and the Ten Commandments inside a Jewish star on the other, it serves as a reminder of JDC’s early activities in Ottoman Palestine during World War I.

Throughout the war years, even after the United States entered the conflict in April 1917, JDC found ways to channel the funds raised by its constituent groups to Jews suffering from hunger and malnutrition. In March 1915, some $1.5 million was sent to Palestine on the SS Vulcan, along with 900 tons of food and medicine; a second shipment reached Palestine the following year. Though JDC may not have been in the trenches alongside the troops, JDC support was felt far and wide. 

Scrapbook from Shanghai

JDC’s extensive text collection meticulously records emigration assistance across the decades by way of reports, correspondence, and passenger lists. However, the historical summaries and statistical data only tell part of the story for the refugees experiencing displacement. A scrapbook made by 25-year-old Gertrud Glanz allows us to read between the lines of lists and sheds light on the daily life of refugees in Shanghai during World War II. A budding photographer, her album is composed of photographs, resident certificates, business cards, IDs, and bills from Gertrud’s journey to and sojourn in Shanghai. The pages offer an intimate look at the continuation of life despite world upheaval. Gertrud’s creative hand can be seen as she documents the people she’s met and the places she’s been. 

Gertud Glanz, Snapshots of daily life in Shanghai,
c. 1941-49, photographs and paper.

There are portraits of individuals who shared her trip by ship to Shanghai as well as animal headshots, Shanghai street scenes, and even a visit to an army base. You feel as if you’re experiencing Shanghai through the burgeoning photographer’s eyes — witnessing her attempts to capture life in the studio and street, all amidst the backdrop of a new and exotic city. The sepia-toned images capture the happy memories, but ephemera such as a Shanghai Hebrew Relief Society & Shelter House identification card — stamped with “Shanghai Jewish Joint Distribution Committee” — reminds us that despite smiling faces, war was brewing and daily necessities were lacking. 

About 18,000 Jewish refugees had fled to Shanghai, China by the end of 1941. It was the only free port in the world willing to grant them asylum without passports or guarantees of an ultimate destination. In cooperation with the local Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees, JDC representatives Laura Margolis and Manuel Siegel built a well-oiled emergency relief operation, including hostels to house the refugees, food programs, and other critical service that sustained the refugees for the duration of the war. A Shanghai Refugee Client List from 1950 indicates that with JDC’s help, Gertrud Glanz and her mother Margarethe were able to secure passage to the U.S., where Gertrud became a professional photographer and artist.

Jewish Renewal

With the passage of time, items of distribution and aid have morphed into relics imprinted with the JDC legacy. Nowhere is this more evident than with materials manufactured during JDC’s far-reaching efforts to rebuild and sustain European Jewry in the aftermath of World War II. This assistance touched upon every aspect of Jewish religious, communal, and cultural life. JDC distributed food, clothing, tools, equipment, and educational materials to the displaced persons (DP) camps of Germany, Austria, and Italy, which were housing close to 250,000 individuals by 1947. JDC also brought in tens of thousands of machzorim (High Holy Day prayerbooks) and talitot (prayer shawls) into DP camps.   

Religious items are distributed to the DP camps of Germany, October c. 1948.

One such tallit — received by Josef Friedman while he was interned at Muenchenberg DP camp in Kassel, Germany — was returned to JDC almost 70 years after it was originally distributed. Friedman was born in Cluj, Romania, and liberated from Buchenwald, and his tallit bears the printed inscription of ‘Gift From ‘Joint” along the edge. Threadbare and stained, it shows how much it was used and treasured by Josef. When it was donated to us by Josef’s son Steven Friedman, we even received the tallit bag Josef made, evidence it was something he truly cherished. In its decay we see one man’s reconnection to his Jewish identity and religion after the destruction of the war. It also tells the story of an organization that cared for its clients, both body and soul. 

These are just a fraction of the materials that unearth JDC stories. These objects animate the words of JDC reports and the names of those on immigration lists. Their placement in the JDC Archives is integral to preserving the mission and story of JDC, and I invite you to explore more artifacts in the JDC Archives online database

Do you have any artifacts or ephemera whose history is intertwined with JDC’s? If you or a family member received aid from JDC or were involved in JDC leadership, perhaps you have relics that recount those experiences. Our photograph and text collections document history, but your anecdotes and artifacts can help bring the Archives alive for the next generation.

Abra Cohen has been an archivist at JDC since July 2015. She holds an MA in Jewish Art and Visual Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a BA in Art History from the University of Michigan. She has led the project to rehouse, digitize, and expand the JDC Archives collection of Artifacts and Ephemera. 

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