One Hundred Years Ago in the Ukraine

Boris Bogen
Boris Bogen

The Hoover Museum just opened its temporary exhibit, ‘Deliverance: America and the Famine in Soviet Russia, 1921-1923.’  In walking through, I recalled that I’d once seen some letters in the Lewis Strauss papers which discussed famine relief in Russia and Ukraine.  Eventually, I remembered the name of the correspondent.  Boris Bogen, coordinating the work of the American Relief Administration [ARA] and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee [JDC], wrote Strauss a series of long, thoughtful letters describing the situation in the Ukraine.  Bogen ultimately wrote more than one hundred letters to Strauss, some running to eight typed pages.

Bogen was a Russian-born, naturalized American citizen who earned a Ph.D. in pedagogy from New York University.  He worked with Jewish settlement houses and wrote a book on Jewish Philanthropy in 1917.  Bogen might have remained an academic and social worker, but he was moved by the plight of Jews in Holland and Poland during the Great War.  Like Herbert Hoover, Bogen walked away from his comfortable life and began years of public service securing food, clothes and medical care for Jews displaced by the war.  He was the General Director of the JDC in Warsaw from 1919 to 1920.  His work there earned him the encomium ‘Herbert Hoover of Poland’ among Polish Jews.

In April 1922, Bogen arrived in Ukraine to lead the AJJDC efforts to provide food, clothing and medical care to Ukrainians suffering under Bolshevik rule.  He had to define his role carefully, for the ARA was already established as the primary relief agency in Ukraine.  Bogen and the JDC would take the lead in providing relief to children and Jews; the ARA would manage the rest.  Bogen’s first letter to Strauss from Ukraine is dated April 13, 1922 and is eight typewritten pages.  He outlines an ambitious plan to visit Kiev, Jitomir, Berditchev, Vinnitza, Proskurow, Odessa, Melitoprol, Kharkov, Kherson and Nikolaev to get ‘first-hand information as the long-distance method is not giving results.’

Bogen’s letter goes on to describe the Boschian horrors that faced Ukrainians.  His first morning in Kiev, he visited the train station where thousands of refuges had gathered seeking food.  One ragged man was seeking funds so that he and his sick son could get back to Russia.  A woman was arguing in a frenzy that a soldier should not touch the body of her dead husband.  ‘The air was foul, the people were covered in vermin, sick and miserable.’ The situation was just as horrific at the feeding station—where thousands waited vainly for food that would not come, at the concentration camp for refugees, and at the hospital.  Bogen observed similar situations in the other Ukrainian cities he visited.  He described them all in grim detail, knowing that Strauss would use the information judiciously in fundraising.

In a July letter to Strauss, Bogen touched on the delicate topic of what type of men were needed to do the hard work of relief in Ukraine.  He was adamant that neither dilettantes nor tourists need apply.  If an emergency arose, as it doubtless would, Bogen wanted men who would meet it head on ‘as there will be no running away from it.  We ought to have men with experience in the field, capable and willing to stand any kind of hardship.’  Anything less, and the relief work would falter.  He closed with the rhetorical flourish: ‘What are you going to do with people who have no experience and are afraid even to walk on the streets of New York?’

Two weeks later, Bogen’s July 31st letter to Strauss made this point clearly.  He wrote ‘I am writing from the train on my way from Odessa to Kiev, just after rather an unpleasant discover that after the visit of some unwelcome guests I remained minus my trousers.  Together with that I lost two hundred and forty million rubles, six English pounds and ten dollars plus a part of my anatomy—a wonderful set of golden teeth.  It is bad luck, but cheer up, it could have been worse.  They missed seven hundred English pounds.  Fortunately, I happened to have with me another pair of trousers.’  And, it seems, Bogen also retained his sense of humor. 

Bogen continued to traverse Ukraine through August.  In September 1922, he relocated to Moscow to hammer out a memorandum of understanding between the ARA and the AJJDC over which agency would take what responsibilities in the Ukraine moving forward.  Bogen spent several weeks in Kiev, Odessa and Kharkov in late September and October before returning to Moscow.  He returned to the Ukraine briefly in early 1923, but his letters at this time focused on administrative issues rather than describing the situation on the ground.

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