—Caroline E. Light
Many common threads link the lives of the orphans and widowed mothers documented in the case files of the Hebrew Orphans Home of Atlanta. They came to the home when life circumstances left them no other choice: economic crisis, illness, death, and abandonment recur in these records, and the institution extended to each the helping hand of Jewish gemilut hasadim, or “loving kindness.” But another constant, from just before the Great Depression until World War II, was their contact with a woman who many came to see as a surrogate mother during a time of extreme hardship and emotional strain.
Viola Wyle, the orphan home’s Director of Case Work starting in January 1929, was born in Ohio in 1881, the daughter of a native-born father and a Czechoslovakian mother. Before arriving at the Atlanta home at age 49 with her husband Armand, the home’s new superintendent, and her daughter, Eleanor, she had served Jewish orphan homes in Rochester, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Cleveland, Ohio.
Early in her career, Wyle had attended the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in January 1909—less than one year before she herself became a mother—where she joined two hundred other social work professionals to discuss the effects of institutionalization on young children. Declaring that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization,” President Theodore Roosevelt called for an end to the institutionalization of impoverished children. Twenty years later, Viola Wyle would make it her mission to provide loving homes for the Jewish orphans and half-orphans of the southeast.
The Wyles moved to Atlanta in January 1929, just months before the Stock Market crash would send the nation hurtling into economic crisis, with a catastrophic impact on southern immigrant communities. While the wives of past Superintendents had assumed the role of “Matron” or home mother, Viola Wyle worked as a vital part of the home’s professional team, overseeing the process of assigning children to foster families in the community and supervising widowed mothers who received monthly subsidies to care for their own children. It was through her efforts and ingenuity that the home ended its institutionalized care by 1931.
Wyle’s substantial personal qualities and warmth helped generate trust and cooperation among her clients throughout the home’s five state region, and her impact is evident in the extensive case files she compiled and managed during her tenure. As a result of a combination of meticulous record-keeping and what one might call sentimentality, the case files she left behind provide a treasure trove of insight into the lives of Jewish southerners who struggled for survival during the Depression. Her tendency to keep and file the sometimes personal correspondence that transpired between herself and the widows and orphans whose lives she touched illuminate the complexity and ambivalence that characterized the relationship between social workers and their clients.
Hers was difficult and sometimes heartbreaking work, in which she had to balance sympathy for her clients with discerning attention to the institution’s strained budget. For example, Wyle visited the homes of subsidized mothers, ensuring that their children were properly socialized and educated. She determined which local families could provide suitable foster homes for orphans. She collected report cards from all children in the home’s care, providing additional support for subsidized and foster mothers whose children struggled academically.
Yet beyond her provision of guidance and supervision for the home’s regionally dispersed clientele, Wyle served as a source of warmth and reassurance, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, for many of the struggling families she served. Her death in March 1944 sent shockwaves through her community, and the home sent letters to clients both past and present notifying them of the tragic loss of a “mother to all.” Viola Wyle’s personal mementoes—the wedding and bar and bat mitzvah invitations, New Years and Mothers’ Day cards, and baby announcements—are all preserved alongside the professionally assembled case records documenting the lives touched by this “professional altruist.” We owe the depth and richness of this archive to her.
Caroline E. Light is Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South (NYU Press, 2014).