FROM THE VAULT
By Cheryl Kempler
Abram I. Elkus (1867-1947) was an eminent attorney and B’nai B’rith member whose investigation into Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, killing hundreds trapped behind locked doors, yielded new safeguards for American workers.
In July 1916, President Woodrow Wilson named Elkus U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Posted to the embassy at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) he worked with B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations to feed, shelter and medically treat thousands of refugees in the city. Recalled in early April 1917, just prior to America’s entry into World War I, Elkus, who had contracted typhus in one of the soup kitchens he helped to open, could not travel for months. Henry Morgenthau (1856-1946), Elkus’ predecessor as Ottoman ambassador, also belonged to B’nai B’rith.
In January 1917, B’nai B’rith’s Constantinople Lodge instituted the Jane Elkus Prize, endowed by the ambassador in memory of his youngest daughter one year after her death. Awarded through 1932, the 50 lira purse (approximately $1,200 today) was first given to poor girls enrolled in one of several private Jewish academies there. But after the 1918 Armistice, the jury honored women — nurses, academics and philanthropists — who helped people during the war. Speeches by leaders of both the men’s and women’s lodges each year detailed extraordinary accomplishments of winners who put themselves at risk or made sacrifices caring for others; some were educators dedicated to the underprivileged.
The 1921 Elkus recipient, teacher Rachel Naar, founded several orphanages in Turkey, rescuing many homeless children. In 1927, her sisters, retired school deans Hélène Weismann and Victoria Semach, were selected. In the 1870s, Weismann had been one of the first instructors of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, promoting human rights and modern, secular schools for Jews in the Middle East. Semach began her 30-year career living and working in one-room schoolhouses in Bulgaria, eventually joining her sister, who established several girls’ academies near Constantinople. Both experienced the often-violent backlash from religious leaders who objected to the teaching of math and science. The sisters donated their prize money to a senior residence and a Jewish hospital.
In 1928, Rachel Bejarano, assistant to her father, Turkey’s Chief Rabbi, was chosen. A nurse during the war, she remained active in philanthropic causes. With the prize money, she established a “vacation home” facility where poor children received adequate nourishment and medical care. Enlarged during the 1930s, it remained open until at least 1945.