Runaway Husbands, Desperate Families: The Story of the National Desertion Bureau

Runaway Husbands, Desperate Families: The Story of the National Desertion Bureau

Popular stereotypes about Jewish husbands are usually positive: they’re loyal, they’re good providers, they don’t drink to excess, and they aren’t violent. It’s no wonder most people have never heard of the National Desertion Bureau, an agency created in New York in 1911 to track down runaway Jewish husbands and bring them to justice. It turns out that the era of Jewish mass migration from Eastern Europe to North America, was accompanied by terrible cultural and social upheaval, poverty, and failure. One sad feature of this era was the phenomenon of broken families, which occurred on a mass scale.

The problem of Jewish men abandoning their families was so severe that along with the National Desertion Bureau, Yiddish newspapers like the Forverts, with a daily readership in the hundreds of thousands, published a popular column called “The Gallery of Missing Husbands,” which featured mug shots and descriptions of men who had left their wives and families in the lurch. There were even local psychics on the Lower East Side who specialized in tracking down missing husbands.

Addressing a true social epidemic in the Jewish community, the National Desertion Bureau worked with a multiplicity of governmental and private organizations to find these men and force them to pay alimony, child support, and serve jail time if they didn’t. From 1905 through the 1960s, the Bureau tracked more than 18,000 cases. Its files are rich in detail and are often short novellas unto themselves, with details on the tragedy of marital dissolution, abandoned children, and financial ruin.

Together with The Jewish Board, YIVO is pleased to present a new exhibition, Runaway Husbands, Desperate Families: The Story of the National Desertion Bureau, which traces the history of the National Desertion Bureau and includes never before seen records, documents, and photographs from the organization’s voluminous archives.


Through: December 31
Entry: Free


Mon-Wed: 9:30am-4:30pm
Thurs: 9:30am-8pm
Fri: 10am-3pm
Sat: Closed
Sun: 11am-5pm