The work of ORT (Society for the Promotion of Handicraft and Agricultural Work among Jews) in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s, is one of the most successful and, at the same time, one of the most tragic episodes in the history of this organisation. To get some idea of the extent of ORT’s work during this period, the following statistics will suffice: between 1926 and 1930 4.7 million roubles was allotted for providing assistance to Soviet Jews, and by the end of 1937 ORT’s total investment in the various branches of the Soviet national economy had reached 8.32 million roubles (for comparison: the average pay for a worker in the national economy of the USSR in 1937 was 3093 roubles). Despite the fact that in the years of the ‘Great Terror’ ORT ceased its work in the USSR (as did all foreign Jewish organisations), it would be incorrect to conclude that this considerable financial support had been given in vain. Thanks purely to ORT’s programme of professional-technical education, which included the organizing of craft training and of instructional and material support for vocational colleges, thousands of Jews were enabled to enter a profession and to adapt themselves to the new socio-economic conditions. It should be emphasised that about 40 percent of the Jewish population of Soviet Russia, according to the Bolshevik constitution of 1918, were included in the category of ‘disenfranchised persons’ (i.e. without citizens’ rights, called lishentsy in Russian), and only their entry into the ranks of the proletariat or the peasantry could help such people to become integrated into the structure of Soviet society.
In the 1920s and 1930s, as a result of the close co-operation of ORT with KOMZET (the Committee for Agricultural Settlement of Jewish Toilers), hundreds of agricultural settlements and state farms were organised in the USSR, many large-scale industrial enterprises were set up, and hundreds of co-operative craft workshops were opened.
The destruction caused by the Civil War, and the policy of war Communism, brought about a mass exodus of Jews from the towns into the now ownerless lands of Ukraine and Belorussia under the Bolshevik slogan ‘Everyone may take as much land as he desires’. However, only about 47,000 people (in Belorussia 19,600, in northern Ukraine 12,400, and in southern Ukraine and the Crimea 15,000, according to I. Bregman) out of a total Jewish population in the USSR of almost three million — i.e. about 1.5 percent — were able to move onto the land and take up agricultural work. This modest outcome of the first stage of Jewish agricultural resettlement was explained by one of its ideologues, I. Bregman, in the following terms: that it proceeded in uncontrolled fashion, without any kind of support, without the necessary experience, and in the face of mistrust, apathy and sabotage on the part of overt and secret anti-Semites in the land organisations.
‘With the aim of bringing order’, in 1924 the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR passed a resolution to establish KOMZET, which was to be an organ to direct and organize the work of transferring the Jewish masses to agricultural labour. The Soviet government judged, quite rightly, that Jewish charitable organisations in the USA and Western Europe would be partners who might be depended on for financial support for the ‘project of Jewish agricultural development’, since it would enable them to continue their activity in the territory of the former Russian empire after the 1917 October Revolution. Moreover, the idea of ‘productivizing’ the Jewish population corresponded fully with these organisations’ policy.
Many authors judge, rightly, that the crucial moment in the history of Jewish agricultural resettlement in the USSR was the signing, in 1923 to 1926, of agreements of co-operation between the Soviet government, which represented various state committees and institutions, and three Jewish charitable organisations: Joint, ORT and the EKO. ORT possibly enjoyed the widest authority and popular support of any Jewish organisation in Russia. The EKO (Yevreiskoe kolonizatsionnoe obshchestvo — the Jewish Colonisation Association), founded in London in 1891 by Baron Moritz von Hirsch with the aim of helping Jews from Eastern Europe to resettle in Argentina, was a philanthropic organisation in the traditional sense. While the EKO assisted in every possible way the development of agriculture and craftsmanship among the Jewish population of Russia, its main object was the distribution of charitable donations among needy Jews. The JDC was still a young charitable foundation at the beginning of the 1920s; it had been founded in the USA immediately after the First World War. Its leaders, for the most part American Jews, had practically no experience of working under conditions like those subsisting in Russia. Dr D. Rosen, one of the leaders of its subsidiary organisation Agro-Joint1, an agronomist and a specialist in farming economics, once observed that ‘Soviet Russia is on the whole a crazy country, where the facts are completely at variance with generally accepted agronomic principles.’ In this joking observation one may discern a certain bafflement at the fact that the skills and methods employed in American intensive farming were by no means always applicable in the backward and unstable conditions of the Russian countryside.
In contrast to their American counterparts, the leaders of ORT, such as L. Bramson, D. Lvovich, J. Tsegelnitski (also an agronomist by profession) were emigrants from ‘the old marches of Russia’, and knew very well what they would have to contend with in realizing their plans for the ‘productivisation’ and ‘agrarisation’ of the Soviet Jews. Furthermore, the basic principles and direction of this activity had been worked out by them long before the 1917 October Revolution. They understood very well the conditions of poverty in which the shtetl Jews lived in the Bolshevik state. Therefore ORT, with its almost forty years’ experience of working in Russia and with a wide-ranging network of departments and subsidiaries, tried above all to provide assistance to the poorest section of the Jewish community, and the one most despised by the Soviet administration: the disenfranchised religious Jews. On the basis of a systematic investigation of the economic and sanitary conditions of the Jewish masses, a special programme of assistance was worked out whereby tens of thousands of shtetl Jews were provided with work and were enabled to adjust their lives to the new political and economic situation. It was this concrete assistance, this help with finding work, that was the cornerstone of the ORT’s charitable activity in the USSR; for its sake the ORT’s leaders had to disregard their beliefs and overcome their political antipathy to the Soviet regime.