Messages from a Lost World

Friday, January 30, 2004

Examining archival collections in the Hoover Archives is often like prying open a time capsule or finding a message in a bottle washed up on shore from a different time and place. Zachary Baker, the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at the Stanford University Libraries, has examined some letters stored in an old, beautifully gold-tooled leather portfolio in the Hoover Archives (see opposite page). It contains decorated thank-you letters written by Polish children to Herbert Hoover in 1921 in appreciation for the food and medicine that Hoover sent to Poland during the difficult years following World War I. Also included in the portfolio are letters from the Talmud Torah schools of the Jewish communities in the Brest-Pinsk region of then Eastern Poland. (Today the area belongs to the newly independent state of Belorussia.) Scholars such as Baker and Hoover East European curator Maciej Siekierski have helped decode these messages from a lost world.

In 1914, when most commentators thought that the Great War would end quickly, Herbert Hoover understood the disaster awaiting civilians in the emerging age of mechanized warfare. As a businessman from the still neutral United States, he organized the feeding of civilians in Belgium and northern France. By 1915 he wanted to send food supplies into Poland as well, where the food shortages were far more severe and the political situation highly unstable. Poland did not exist as a sovereign state but was still partitioned among Russia, Austria, and Germany. The political complications could not be resolved until the Armistice and the collapse of the great empires that had governed Eastern Europe. By then the situation was even more desperate. Reconstituted Poland became engaged in a war with the newly established Soviet Russia. Civil disturbances and border disputes were common, and marauding militias requisitioned whatever food supplies they could find.

The U.S. government–funded food supplies were sent to the schools and shelters for distribution to avoid being diverted by the black market or by roving bands of soldiers. Thus the children’s heartfelt thank-you letters, which have survived in the Hoover Institution Archives, are more than an exercise in politesse. The letters and photographs are proof that the food actually reached the neediest children. These messages—from the once vibrant Jewish communities that were later destroyed in the Holocaust—are from a lost world, written by destitute children with a remarkable thirst for education.

Funding for the relief work came from three major sources: (1) the U.S. Congress, which appropriated $100 million in 1919 dollars toward Polish relief; (2) the newly established Polish government, which contributed $7,600,000 plus warehouse space and other assistance; and (3) the liquidation of military surplus from the Great War and various other donations, which brought the total to $179 million. Money alone could not solve the greatest problem, however, since there was nothing to buy. Feeding the hungry children required an organizational infrastructure and an import and distribution network. Simply getting supplies safely through the German-controlled port of Danzig involved protracted negotiations in a very tense atmosphere. To add to the turmoil, the Ukrainian nationalist army also obstructed the distribution of food supplies.

In the midst of the fighting, the American relief workers acquired freight cars from the U.S. Army and purchased new locomotives from back home. The archives from the period reflect the determination of the Americans to deal effectively with all obstacles to their humanitarian goals. Eventually one and a half million Polish children received food over the three years from 1919 to 1921.

Hoover’s American Relief Administration (ARA) insisted that the supplies be delivered equally to all children, regardless of nationality and religion. In a particularly daring move, the ARA transported supplies into the war zone between Soviet Russia and the newly established Polish state even though the international borders were not yet fully recognized. Not only was this the poorest area, it was also the area with the most complex ethnic mix; in addition to Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Muslim Tartars, there was a large community of Jews. Hoover’s instructions to his American staff were very clear: “Keep entirely out of politics.”

The ARA worked closely with other relief agencies such as the Red Cross and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint). The Joint cooperated with the ARA on a program of remittances, whereby American residents could purchase food packages for friends and relatives in Poland using the economies of scale provided by the ARA purchasing and distribution network. This model worked particularly effectively in maximizing small donations and personalizing the relief effort and goodwill. Food packages could be purchased in $10 and $50 sizes and customized for either Jewish or Christian households. Unlike government-funded supplies, which went to schools, the individual remittances organized by the Joint and the ARA were delivered directly to Jewish homes. There are astonishing reports of packages being delivered to families holed up in basements during combat. The ARA was instrumental in stabilizing the region long enough for the state of Poland to become reestablished. By 1921 the crisis was under control and Hoover visited the region, where he was showered with thank-you letters.

The letters from the war-torn Brest-Pinsk borderlands are particularly interesting social documents. They are covered with the signatures of children just learning how to write, reflecting a bewildering welter of languages and scripts. Polish Western handwriting alternates with Russian Cyrillic and Hebrew characters. Spelling and grammatical errors are common. Photographs of these children in their schools and orphanages capture the impoverished and devastated district of eastern Poland in the interwar period. From their puzzled expressions it is clear that they are not used to being photographed. In small drawings they react to the food sent to them in a time of great need. The following examples provide a sense of the immediacy of the letters.

It is not known precisely what happened to each of the children whose names are preserved in these letters. Although some were apparently able to emigrate—including Menachem Begin, who came from this region, emigrated to Palestine, and eventually became the prime minister of Israel—most of these children perished in the Holocaust. Their names, sentiments, and artwork remain.