ORTs Work During the Second World War

ORT (The Society for the Promotion of Trades and Agriculture in Russia), started in Russia in 1880. By mid 1930s, despite growing anti-Jewish legislation and mounting antisemitism the organisation expanded into a well functioning network of Jewish trade school providing physical and psychological relief for unemployed in Eastern and Central Europe.

The work continued after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. From the beginning of the war, the help provided by the organization was two-fold. ORT concerned itself firstly with Jewish refugees, who sought asylum in countries not yet taken over by the war. Secondly, it worked in the ghettos of Eastern Europe-closed parts of towns and cities in which Germans concentrated the Jewish population, before either killing them in the vicinity of the ghetto or deporting them to death, concentration of forced-labour camps.

Work with refugees

ORT courses for refugees could be found in all the countries where Jews were forced to flee.

ORT’s wartime work began in August 1939, when on the eve of the outbreak of the war over a hundred pupils and eight instructors of the ORT Berlin Engineer School were transferred to England. The boys were transferred to a school in Leeds, where they carried  on the work and training that had begun in Berlin. The school operated for two years, training both boys from the Berlin school as well as refugees from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and Poland.

During the early years of the war, while its headquarters had been based in France, ORT came to the rescue of the refugees who had fled Germany and Austria and found themselves interned as ‘enemy aliens’ in that country. It established vocational courses in the internment camps, while at the same time fighting for their release. Those released were placed in ORT agricultural training projects. Similar projects were carried out among Jewish refugees in Switzerland.

It was not only in Europe that ORT worked during the war. More than 3,000 Jewish refugees obtained training in the ORT school in Shanghai. Vocational schools were also set up for wartime refugees in New York and Cuba. According to ORT reports, among those learning their trade in New York were 1,002 former merchants, 405 former physicians, 161 rabbis, 743 lawyers and 98 former government officials, including several judges.

Work in the ghettos

Alongside other relief and welfare organisations, such as the Jewish Mutual Aid, ORT’s activities in the ghettos contributed to the idea of ‘rescue through work’ –that is utilising work project to make as many Jews as possible indispensable to the German war economy and through this delaying the destruction of the ghettos. Aside from equipping them with practical skills which could be used to make a living, participating in vocational courses had also enormous effect on the emotional state of the students. It allowed them to get away for the duration of the class from the everyday horror of ghetto life. During the war ORT courses were being conducted in a number of Eastern European ghettos. The two where ORT was the most active were Warsaw in Poland and Kovno in Lithuania.

The courses in Warsaw were started immediately  after the establishment of the ghetto. The Germans only permitted ORT to run strictly technical basic courses, yet in reality the classes were often run at level aimed at preparing pupils for future study at the university. Additionally, ORT conducted clandestine classes of academic subjects. As Warsaw had been Europe’s largest Jewish community before the war, there was no shortage of teachers in the ghetto, including eminent professors and specialists. A member of the ORT staff in the Warsaw ghetto recalled:

 ‘ When I look back and think about the variety of courses which were suddenly opened I find myself incapable of explaining how it was possible…Everything around us was demolished. People arrived at the school naked and barefoot. But every student attending the course was able to earn something. During those ‘happy’ days, there were cases of students and instructors fainting from hunger at their work. This however never diminished their devotion to their task…Undernourished, humiliated and oppressed , four and a half thousand ORT pupils between the ages of 16 and 60, were absorbed in their activities, and in them they found their consolation and hope for the future. It seems like a fairy tale to recall that in those days the distribution of ORT certificates was celebrated in the schools, that Chanukah and Purim were observed. In ORT, one could forget the nightmare of reality and find new courage to live. The classroom became a kind of literary and cultural circle’. [1]

The deportations from the ghetto begun in July 1942, and within three months 300,000 inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto were murdered in the death camp of Treblinka.  From July 1942 legal stay in the ghetto was dependant on obtaining a place in the workshop. ORT workshop members were issued ‘life certificates’- special ID cards issued by the Jewish council to people with essential jobs, which were meant to save their holders from deportation to death camps.  The workshops continued to work until 4pm April 18 1943, the last day before the heroic Warsaw ghetto uprising started, and the ghetto ceased to exist. 

Similarly inspirational behaviour was exhibited by those running the vocational workshops in the Kovno ghetto. Kovno, the largest city in the Lithuania, was taken over by the German troops in June 1941. Immediately on entering the city, the Nazi mobile killing unit – Einsatzgruppe A- executed half of the 37,500 Jewish population of Kovno and placed the second half in a sealed ghetto. In order to keep some of the young inhabitants of the ghetto from slave work, the Kovno Jewish Council established a number of vocational workshops inside the ghetto. As part of this initiative, Jacob Oleisky, the head of ORT Lithuania, established a trade school for forty of ghetto’s children. Even though there was very little space and no equipment, courses in locksmiths training and carpentry for boys and dressmaking for girls were organized. The school’s staff consisted of pre-war ORT Kovno teachers imprisoned in the ghetto. Tools were smuggled into the ghetto inside bundles of wood. The school was officially inaugurated at the end of March 1942.

 In the end of 1942 the school had 350 students, a library and a choir and became the cultural centre of the  Kovno ghetto. According to one of the former students:  ‘We put on a play by Peretz, we discussed history and we played chess. As I look back now I must give credit to those dedicated and inspired teachers. Life in the ghetto was miserable and the school was a place of respite.’ [2]

In order to save the lives of the ghetto youth, the school accepted children as young as eight and employed primary school teachers to oversee their education.

The smaller of the two ghettos in Kovno was liquidated in October 1941, when almost all of its inhabitants were killed. Only in one day, on October 29th 1941 over 9000 ghetto inhabitants were killed in one day. On 8 July 1944, the majority of those remaining were deported to Dachau and Stutthof concentration camps.

[1] ORT Bulletin Vol. XVII No.2 (May 1963) pp.4-5

[2] World ORT Archive: Elly Gotz, ‘My Story’- interviewed by Sarah Kavanaugh