The First World War, which began in 1914, led to immense hardships in Russia. At the very beginning of the war a part of the Jewish population within the Pale was compulsorily evacuated to inner regions. These people with their families needed not only homes, but also an opportunity to earn money and provide for their families.
ORT established a ‘Relief-through-Work’ department to help war victims, and employment bureaus to find jobs for Jewish refugees. To avoid duplication of effort among the many organisations engaged in war relief, it was decided to include in the direction of the department members of ORT active in various Jewish agencies, among which were EKOPO (the Jewish Committee for Aiding Sufferers of War and Pogroms) and OZE (Obshchetsvo Zdravookhraneniya Yevreyiev - organisation for the health protection of Jews; later OSE - Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants). During 1915-1916, seventy-two offices were opened to register the unemployed and the homeless. They received 60,000 applicants and found work for 25,000. Those refugees who had trades were placed in restored workshops or in newly established ones. Others were enrolled in short-term training courses. Twenty-seven courses in carpentry, tailoring, metalwork and stocking production were conducted in the unoccupied areas of the Pale. A system of cooperative workshops gave employment to many. First-aid stations and labour aid agencies of ORT and EKOPO were opened; they were busy with rehabilitation of refugees and unemployed Jews. Feeding kitchens adjacent to the shops kept thousands from starvation. Twenty-five credit offices were organised to lend money to destitute craftsmen to reconstitute their shops and businesses. In that way, large numbers were provided with at least a minimal livelihood.
The Relief-through-Work department also extended substantial credits and organisational assistance to various artisan cooperatives capable of executing government orders for military goods. The programme included shoemaking shops in Vilna [Vilnius], a home-tailoring project manufacturing uniforms for the army in Dvinsk [Daugavpils], and a number of loan funds in the southwest region. A cooperative purchasing project for shoemakers in Bobruisk and a similar enterprise in Minsk also received aid. It was estimated that some 4,000 individuals benefited from these efforts.
Of all the refugees the plight of the children was most harrowing. Thousands of lost boys and girls wandered aimlessly, many of them orphaned. For these homeless youth, ORT established trade schools with dormitory facilities. Many were apprenticed to individual craftsmen. ORT became one of the primary relief organisations of the period.
The Relief-through-Work programmes began as an effort to meet the needs of artisans and workers deported from the war zones. However, it soon became apparent that it was both unfair and communally impractical to give priority to the newcomers in an area, leaving the local Jewish unemployed without aid. After much debate, ORT decided to extend its work assistance to all needy artisans and workers without distinguishing between old settlers and refugees. Moreover, after the outbreak of the war, it was not clear whether ORT would be able to continue its previous activities. Many believed that systematic ORT work could not be maintained under the existing conditions and that programmes would have to be radically changed. Fortunately, this did not become necessary. While many ORT programmes had to be adjusted to war conditions, ORT work as a whole made considerable progress during this period. Its expenditure budget grew from 68,000 roubles in 1913 to 541,000 roubles in 1916.
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Tsar abdicated and the Bolsheviks took power. The nightmare for Jews took a new turn. In Russia proper, civil war took off where world war ended, and raged until 1920. Successive pogroms devastated the Jewish people. The collapsed Tsarist Empire had fragmented into a whole string of national states. The six million Jews of Eastern Europe were now distributed among these states and new ORT organisations had to serve the needs of Jews in Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. ORT, which had hitherto been sustained by Russian Jewry, found itself without means. Until 1914, when EKOPO funding supported the bulk of ORT activities, the primary source of revenue had been income realised on the capital of the ORT fund. Now the fund itself was gone. Financing had to be placed on an entirely new basis. ORT urgently needed help from abroad. In 1920, Leon Bramson and David Lvovitch, a politician who had spent some time in the USA and Germany, were sent to the West to seek funds and support from Russian émigrés and a new chapter in ORT’s history began.