Crowded Living Conditions for Jewish Refugees


This photograph shows a group of refugees, including young children and elderly people, sharing one room in a building in Friedrichstadt (present-day Jaunjelgava), Latvia. Friedrichstadt had been a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement. Prior to World War I, the Jewish population of the town was 3,200 out of a total population of 6,500; by the war’s end it had dropped to 800 out of a total population of 2,000. The Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers (later the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, both names abbreviated as the JDC), a humanitarian relief organization, sent one of its inspectors to investigate conditions in Friedrichstadt in December 1920. His report noted that 90‒95 percent of private homes had been destroyed. Residents who had fled during the war had begun to return home; these refugees had nowhere to live. The report describes “32 people huddled together with their baggage and all in a room, 15 feet long and 10 feet wide [4.57 meters by 3.05 meters]… the air was suffocating and heavy. . . . Two of the [children] were sick with scarlet fever, and one died on the very day when this investigation was made.” The JDC was founded by American Jews in New York City to help destitute Jews in Europe and Palestine affected by World War I. The photograph is from the archives of the JDC, which contain documents, photographs, film, video, oral histories, and artifacts recording the work of the organization from World War I to the present. The JDC has operated as a global humanitarian organization in more than 90 countries since 1914.

Last updated: November 14, 2017