Mission to the West

In 1919, the Central Committee of Russian ORT designated Dr Leon Bramson and Dr David Lvovitch as a delegation to establish ties with Western Jewry and to obtain financial support. They began a journey which was destined to impress ORT on the consciousness of the Jewish world and to establish bonds that were to integrate ORT into the fabric of Jewish international welfare aid.

Travelling out of the Soviet Union was difficult. Dr Bramson arrived in Kiev for a consultation with Lvovitch. He left shortly thereafter for Odessa, and remained there until French troops arrived and an opportunity presented itself for him to go to Paris. In the interim, while in Odessa, he started the work for ORT, collected funds and encouraged the organisation’s workers. Lvovitch managed to leave Kiev for Minsk in April 1919. He describes the journey in his account of the work of the ORT Delegation:

‘The general situation was most chaotic. Trains were incessantly attacked by Petlura Gangs and all sorts of guerillas who fought the communists. When trains left without military escort, they were attacked by bandits who took both Jews and communists and executed them on the spot. There was no regular train service between Kiev and Minsk. Fortunately, an old friend of mine, Churgin, a most influential member of the local Parliament, heard that I had to go to Minsk and offered us passage on a freight train transporting bread under escort. My wife and I accepted the offer and started our journey. A physician who traveled with us told us what had happened the previous night when the bandits shot at the wheels of the train and stopped it. They had then gone through and taken away all the Jews and communists they found. Our escort, consisting of six Cossacks, inspected the cars, and reassured us that there was nothing to fear. En route, after a sudden flurry of shots, our train came to a standstill. All dropped to the floor to crawl under the benches, our Cossack escort included. I had remained erect. My wife called to me from under one of the benches and although I looked for space to crawl into, I could find none, so I could only shout back: "There is no more room." Luckily, it was not an attack by bandits. There was a fire under one of the carriages and the firing was to stop the train.’

Source: David Lvovitch, ‘The ORT Delegation 1919-1921...’, in Material and Memoirs: Chapters for the History of ORT, World ORT, Geneva, 1955, pp. 26-27.

At Minsk, Lvovitch discovered that ‘…a great new idea had captivated the Jewish population in the district surrounding Minsk—it was the "call back to the land"’.[1] Throughout the Minsk district numerous agricultural cooperatives had sprung up to handle the produce of Jewish truck-gardeners. Lvovitch supported this work while in Minsk and was instrumental in gaining protection for the venture when Polish soldiers committed atrocities against them and looted the cooperatives’ property.

‘I would like to recount here an "incident" of that period which filled me with a strong feeling of presentiment—the horrible Vilna Pogrom perpetrated by General Haller's troops. To inflame the Polish soldiers in their bloodletting, propaganda had been spread that the Bolsheviks and Jews were their enemies, and thus must be destroyed. The pogrom provoked vast indignation in America. This massacre was one of the first expressions of Poland's independence, so warmly seconded by President Wilson. Public opinion in America protested with such vigor that President Wilson decided to dispatch Henry Morgenthau, Jr., as Special Ambassador to Warsaw with an order that he see to it that such "incidents" never recur. Morgenthau succeeded in forcing the Polish Army to accept an American Military Mission under General Jadvid. The Mission arrived in Minsk just as a number of "small disorders" broke out wherein 14 Jews lost their lives. It goes without saying that during these disorders houses were looted, and our cooperatives suffered because provocateurs had told the troops that they were communist property. The situation was made even more desperate because the soldiers were not obeying their own officers. It was at that point that I decided to visit General Jadvid. I explained to him that the Jewish Agricultural Cooperatives, established with the assistance of American funds, were being looted by Polish soldiers. The General just couldn't comprehend the entire situation, asking me repeatedly who I was and how I had arrived there. I explained to him that I recently arrived from the United States, and that I represented the ORT Organization. I had with me a rather unusual introduction in the form of an invitation to a banquet in New York which had been held shortly before I left America in 1917, at which time monies had been collected for a Statue of Liberty to be presented to Russia. This banquet had been attended by ex-President Taft, Jacob Schiff, Sholem Asch and quite a number of prominent New York Jews. Among them, too, was Adolph Levinson. General Jadvid called in his collaborator, Professor Levinson, from England, to whom he showed my invitation. "Oh", said the Professor, "I see my uncle was there. He is a well known personality in New York." Subsequent to this, I became a kind of "persona grata". The General then called in his Polish Attaché, Count Tschepchinsky, who turned out to be very friendly and ready to be of assistance. I was given a letter to the Police Colonel in Minsk, which when presented, made a profound impression. I left him, in the escort of two  gendarmes who had been ordered to arrest any soldier found molesting our property. As a matter of fact, just as we arrived at one of our Cooperatives, two soldiers were caught and arrested. The procession consisting of myself, the two arrested soldiers, and the two escort  gendarmes, wound its way through the city. Those who viewed us undoubtedly believed that I was the prisoner. The important result, however, was that the looting and murdering ceased immediately.’

Source: David Lvovitch, ‘The ORT Delegation 1919-1921...’, in Material and Memoirs: Chapters for the History of ORT, World ORT, Geneva, 1955, pp. 27-28.

From Minsk, Lvovitch travelled to Vilna [Vilnius], where initial steps to start ORT work had already begun. He was involved in setting up a gardening school and worked to further agricultural activity among Jewish farmers. He remained in Vilna for some time helping the local ORT committee establish technical schools and gardening projects. He also established ties with the JDC representative in Warsaw.

In March 1920 Lvovitch joined Bramson in Paris. 1.5 million East European Jews had emigrated between 1881 and 1914. Their ties to the Old World were still fresh and the disaster that had overwhelmed their people back home was deeply felt. The ORT delegation therefore had the community’s ear everywhere. They addressed mass meetings and left behind committees which would enlist members and become the basis of permanent organisations.

The delegation’s first major task was acquainting the existing Jewish organisations and the broad strata of Western European Jewry with the economic plight of Eastern European Jewry, their urgent need, and the experience acquired in ORT’s programme of help through work. They presented a series of memoranda on these questions to the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) and the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the English and Scandinavian Aid Committees, the World Relief Conference, the workers organizations for mutual aid, and others. The delegation delivered a series of public lectures on the subject in Paris, London, Manchester, Berlin and other major cities. In addition, they entered into negotiations with several organisations to secure their financial support for ORT’s work. Several important partnerships were formed and ORT’s work was acknowledged and supported by many of the above mentioned organisations and more.

Russian immigrants came to the delegation's support and formed the nucleus of future ORT groups. In London, Manchester, Berlin, Paris, Leipzig, Danzig, the Scandinavian cities, they were received as emissaries of a community in distress. By the summer of 1921, with the seeds for several national ORT committees sown, the time was ripe to launch ORT as an international organisation.

[1] David Lvovitch, ‘The ORT Delegation 1919-1921...’, in Material and Memoirs: Chapters for the History of ORT, World ORT, Geneva, 1955, p. 27.