Bertha Kling and WWI Relief Aid

The writers and artists who frequented the Klings’ salon in the Bronx from the 1900s through the 1950s were united in their shared love of culture, especially literature and music, and most especially Yiddish poetry. That didn’t mean, however, that Bertha Kling and her friends stood apart from the struggles and problems of their day. On the contrary: as recent immigrants from towns and cities across the Russian Empire, they took an intense interest in global current affairs and Jewish politics. Many of them also maintained close ties to the Jewish left.

Volunteers Organization / People’s Relief …a fragment from a larger photo. Bertha Kling is front center, behind the banner. (Courtesy of Deborah Ramsden)

Kling herself was closely connected to many leaders of the organised Jewish labor movement through her work on the People’s Relief Committee for Jewish War Sufferers (PRC). Founded in 1915, the Committee mobilised grassroots support in America for European Jewish refugees, pogrom victims, and reconstruction work. Its volunteers raised funds among socialist groups, unions, and Workmen’s Circle branches, and in street, tenement, and workshop collections. All donations, no matter how small, were acknowledged with a printed receipt.

Almost all the Committee’s founders and officials were household names among Yiddish-speaking immigrants. They included prominent Yiddish writers and journalists (Abraham Cahan, Sholem Asch, Khonen [or Chonen] Minikes, and Dovid Pinsky), politicians and labor activists (Meyer London, Jacob Pankin, Max Pine, Adolph Held, and Baruch Charney Vladeck) and Zionist leaders (Baruch Zuckerman and Louis Lipsky).

A meeting of the People’s Relief Committe, c1918. Front row, right to left: Bertha Kling, Tisia Berkovitch, Madzhe Asch. Back row (standing, far left): I J Schwartz. (From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Bertha Kling Collection)

These two photographs from Bertha Kling’s personal archive give us a rare glimpse into this world. They show her active in street membership drives and in private committee meetings. Alongside her are friends from her circle, such as the Yiddish poet I. J. Schwartz and ‘Tisia Berkovitch,’ possibly a relative of Sholem Aleichem’s son-in-law, I. D. Berkowitz. Other contacts and friendships were likely formed in the course of her work for the People’s Committee, for example Madzhe Asch (the wife of writer Sholem Asch), who emigrated to the US in 1914.

Many immigrant households donated their hard-earned nickels and dimes to the People’s Relief Committee. This receipt is for a 10 cents donation. (Courtesy of Saul Jay Singer)

The PRC was wound up in 1924, but its legacy lives on—it was one of three WWI-era Jewish relief charities which joined forces to form the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), commonly known today as the Joint.

—David Mazower and Sophia Shoulson

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