Photo Credit: Tsadik Kaplan

These are the slow, lazy days of summer, so I am not entirely surprised that I have no questions at the moment from The Jewish Press audience asking me to appraise their Judaic heirlooms in my once-a-month column. (Perhaps you have an item that you are curious about? Send photos to [email protected].)

So for this column, since Tisha B’Av has arrived, a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, I thought I would write about another dark period in Jewish history from a collector’s view – mine: the misery that much of Eastern European Jewry endured during World War I, as enormous numbers suffered from poverty, starvation, exposure, and mistreatment.


Concerned Jews in America organized to provide relief to devastated Jewish communities. In 1914, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was formed. More organizations sprang up to help and offer aid, such as the People’s Relief Committee for Jewish War Sufferers and the Central Relief Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War.

My introduction to this era was the purchase of a small celluloid pinback button which had a paper insert dated 1916 on the reverse. In the center is a heavily clothed figure carrying an infant, against a backdrop of the American flag. At the top, it states in Hebrew, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me” (Genesis 4:10), while at the bottom. in English it reads, “The Jews Look To America For Help.” Presumably, a person received this button after giving a donation to one of the aforementioned relief funds.

Years later, I saw this piece of paper appear in the marketplace, which I acquired. It is a numbered receipt stating that a ten-cent donation was received for a Jewish relief fund, whose name was boldly printed in English and Yiddish. Here again was a depiction of a figure holding an infant, but unlike the form on the pinback button, much more detail could be seen on this receipt, including the Hebrew word galus (exile) underneath the figure. What exactly was I looking at? What was this image? After some lengthy Internet research, I spotted a match: In a London saleroom of Sotheby’s auction house in 2006, a bronze figure titled “Exile” by the sculptor Jules Butensky was offered for sale.

Jules Leon Butensky (1871-1947) was born in Stolovici, Russia. He initially trained with the Russo-Jewish sculptor Mark Antokolski before moving to Vienna, where he studied at the Imperial Academy of Art, from which he then went to Paris, studying under the sculptors Antonin Mercie and Alfred Boucher. He settled in New York in 1905 where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. Butensky enjoyed moderate success, and his sculptures were accessioned by various respected institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The bronze figure at auction, made in 1915, was Butensky’s interpretation of the “Eternal Wandering Jew,” and featured the word “Galus” in large Hebrew letters on the base. Butensky was likely inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees at the time, as the features and dress of the figure is very much Eastern European in manner. The bronze figure is known to have existed in two different sizes: 13” and 26.5” tall. One example was presented to President Woodrow Wilson and entered the White House collection, and another was acquired by the Newark Museum in 1921.

Apparently Butensky gave permission to use the image of his sculpture to various committees in their fundraising efforts for Jews affected by World War I. I began searching for any button or piece of ephemera that raised funds for this purpose which simultaneously featured an image of the Butensky sculpture, but the pickings were slim; a button here, a receipt there, and that’s it. Then, one day, while I was rummaging through boxes filled with all types of old Jewish documents and books for sale, I came across a startling handbill, with a sideways image of the Butensky sculpture encircled by a plea in Yiddish: “Help for the Jewish War Sacrificial Victims.” Indeed the entire piece of paper was in Yiddish, beginning with the darkened headline, “The Button of Tears and Blood.” Here is the rest of the text, translated:

This is an enlarged picture of a button that the relief committee is selling to support the war sacrificial victims. It is an attractive button in gold and blue. It costs a dollar. Buy such a button and always wear it in your lapel (for ladies it has been made in the form of a pin). This is a badge of your sympathy for the unfortunate. Always wear it and see to it that your friends wear it! Every Jew should wear such a button; every woman or girl should wear such a pin! It would be shameful to walk in the street without such a button, without such a pin. How can one forget the great tragedy of our people for even a minute. This tragedy should be engraved on everyone’s heart. May the button serve everyone as an external sign or our inner pain, of our inner love. To foil swindlers, buy the button only from people you know. The picture on the button is a copy of the figure representing the Jew as an eternal wanderer. The figure was created by the famous Jewish sculptor, Butensky.

Curiously, I have never seen the “attractive button in gold and blue” with the aforementioned Yiddish plea; however, I had seen countless examples of a button in gold and blue with the English “Aid For The Jewish War Sufferers,” as shown here. Despite years of searching for that Yiddish-text button, including contacting people who have collected old Jewish buttons for longer than I have been alive, the Yiddish button pictured on the handbill is nowhere to be found; it is entirely unknown. In all likelihood it was an artist rendering or a prototype, and the actual production button is the English version seen here.

But maybe, just maybe, a modest amount in Yiddish were indeed issued (perhaps 50 or so), and there is an example out there, sitting in a drawer, waiting to be discovered and its existence shared with the collecting community. Do you have it? Let me know and I’ll make you “famous!”


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Tsadik Kaplan is a collector, certified appraiser, and speaker/lecturer on the topic of Judaica. He is the author of the book “Jewish Antiques: From Menorahs to Seltzer Bottles” (Schiffer Publishing). For questions or comments – or to send pictures of your Judaica for future columns – email [email protected].