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Established in 1914 to aid Palestinian Jews caught up in the agony of World War I, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC or "The Joint") has brought aid to people all over the world -- including Europe after World War II ("the Jewish Marshall Plan"), the ...
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Established in 1914 to aid Palestinian Jews caught up in the agony of World War I, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC or "The Joint") has brought aid to people all over the world -- including Europe after World War II ("the Jewish Marshall Plan"), the State of Israel in the early days of its inception, and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. The JDC has a simple mission: to help those in need, whoever they are and wherever they are found.
An activist and leader in Jewish affairs all his life, Ralph Goldman is the heart and soul of the JDC. From the 1940s through the 1960s, he assisted David Ben-Gurion during the founding of the State of Israel, and went on to serve as Executive Vice President of the JDC during the 1970s and 1980s. Under Goldman's leadership, the JDC established schools and community centers in Israel, brought aid to Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and improved the lives of people around the world. Called "the ultimate insider" by former mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, Goldman is a vital part of Jewish life and an inspiration to people all over the world.
In I Seek My Brethren: Ralph Goldman and "The Joint" acclaimed writer Tom Shachtman offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the post-WWII political and social landscape, and a picture of how one man's compassion can profoundly affect the lives of many.
A Brief History of "The Joint"
Ralph Goldman has been associated with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("The Joint") for so many years that many who know him are unable to untangle their sense of the organization from that of the man. Actually, both Ralph Irving Goldman and what would become the Joint were born in 1914—Goldman in the Ukraine, and the organization in New York City. This and the next chapter recount their separate histories before they joined forces in 1968.
The Joint Is Born: 1914—1918
On August 31, 1914, Jacob H. Schiff, the prominent New York Jewish businessman and philanthropist, received a cable from Henry Morgenthau, the United States ambassador based in Constantinople, Turkey. It said:
PALESTINIAN JEWS FACING TERRIBLE CRISIS BELLIGERENT COUNTRIES STOPPING THEIR ASSISTANCE SERIOUS DESTRUCTION THREATENS THRIVING COLONIES FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS NEEDED BY RESPONSIBLE COMMITTEE DOCTOR RUPPIN CHAIRMAN TO ESTABLISH LOAN INSTITUTE AND SUPPORT FAMILIES WHOSE BREADWINNERS HAVE ENTERED ARMY CONDITIONS CERTAINLY JUSTIFY AMERICAN HELP WILL YOU UNDERTAKE MATTER
In the first days of August 1914, the Great War had begun, pitting Great Britain and France against imperial Germany. Turkey entered the war as an ally of Germany, and czarist Russia entered as the ally of the British and French. All this proved highly dangerous to the 85,000 Jews living in scattered settlements inPalestine, under Turkish domain. Many elderly Jews there had depended on money sent from relatives and friends in Russia, while younger Palestinian Jews had been selling their agricultural products to Western European markets. Now, neither Russian money nor Palestinian agricultural products could cross international borders. Worse still for Palestinian Jews, the Turkish government cut off food to settlements, causing widespread hunger and starvation.
Ambassador Morgenthau had good reason to believe his cable would spur action. He had sent it to Schiff and Louis Marshall, both officers of the American Jewish Committee, a national organization founded in 1906 to defend the rights of Jews. Along with Morgenthau, Schiff, and Marshall were leaders of an elite group of wealthy German-American Jews. The ambassador knew that they all subscribed to the traditional belief, expressed in the Talmud, that all Jews are responsible for fellow Jews. Charitable actions based on this belief had sustained Jews in the diaspora for many centuries, had enabled whole villages to survive when only a few residents managed to earn wealth, and continued to direct the philanthropy of those who had climbed out of poverty. American Jews were especially responsive to such appeals, conscious of their good fortune in what had become for many immigrants the land of opportunity.
Schiff answered the cable with a check for $12,500. His colleague, Nathan Straus, contributed an equal amount, and the American Jewish Committee added another $25,000; the amassed $50,000 was transferred to Constantinople.
In the ensuing months, the armies of the czar forced a half-million Jews out of their homes in the Pale, an area comprising parts of Poland and Ukraine. One hundred thousand were pushed deeper into Russia, and 400,000 were shoved in the other direction, toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These refugees and other Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East all required immediate assistance from outside sources.
In response to this crisis, the leaders of forty American Jewish organizations met in New York in October 1914 and established the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which soon came to be referred to as the JDC or simply The Joint. The participants at the October meeting acknowledged the gravity of the problem by pledging $1.5 million for refugee relief—thirty times the amount that Morgenthau had initially sought for Palestine's Jews. In today's terms that would be equal to nearly $50 million.
"All Jews of every shade of thought, irrespective of the land of their birth," the new organization's first communiqué said, "are solemnly admonished to contribute with the utmost generosity." And they did contribute, because of the sharp focus of the JDC's purpose—relief of the refugees—and because of the foresight of leaders Marshall, Schiff, and Schiff's son-in-law Felix Warburg, who managed to thrust into the background serious issues that had earlier separated American Jews into feuding camps divided along ethnic, class, and religious lines.
It was possible to keep this sharp focus and to supercede the old, divisive issues because the JDC came into being in response to an emergency, and it was perceived by its founders as a temporary agency with a narrow mission. The founders further presumed that all the Jews needing help were in Eastern Europe or Palestine, and that once the war ended, they would be able again to take care of themselves and the JDC would cease operations. These were reasonable assumptions at the time—most nations believed the war would be over in a season or a year, after which things would return to normal.
"The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime," British Foreign Secretary Edmund Grey had said prior to the outbreak of war. Few then believed him, but the Jews of Eastern Europe understood his remark as apt prophecy, because for them the lamps had been steadily going dark for the past thirty years. Since the pogroms in the Pale during the 1880s, and increasingly since the turn of the new century, Jews had become the focus of hatred and persecution that had led to impoverishment and uprooting; the start of the Great War exacerbated their condition.
Thus, while the founders of the JDC had only a dim perception of long-term danger, they realized the need to establish a broadly based organization to call upon the resources of all of America's Jews. To raise $1.5 million, files of potential contributors were established, local and state committees empanelled, and mail and press solicitations begun. A year later, as the war continued without an end in sight, Nathan Straus raised the next campaign goal to $5 million, to which he personally pledged $100,000. President Woodrow Wilson declared a Jewish War Sufferers Relief Day, and this governmental recognition, along with the willingness of the Red Cross to collect for the cause and substantial pledges from some of the wealthiest American Jews, achieved the goal.
During 1916, American Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, an educator and community leader, toured the sections of war-torn Poland under German rule and reported to the fledgling JDC that at least $10 million would be required in the next campaign. In the fall of 1916, as pressure mounted for American entry into the war, a kick-off meeting at Carnegie Hall in New York raised $1 million for the JDC's work. An additional $1 million from Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck, contingent on the committee raising the remaining $8 million, stimulated further organizational work. In New York City, for example, where the goal was $5 million, a list of 150,000 prospects, divided by occupations, was given to volunteer teams for solicitation. The United States' entry into the war in the spring of 1917 further spurred donations to the JDC cause.
Beyond the First Crisis: 1918-1932
By November 11, 1918, when the Great War officially ended, it had become obvious that the return of peace would not immediately end the suffering of Jews in war-torn Europe.
During a meeting at Versailles, Western European leaders Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and David Lloyd George, with the reluctant agreement of Wilson, placed draconian conditions on the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The extent of war reparations to be repaid by the losing belligerents, as well as the fallout from the revolutions that brought the Communists to power in Russia and dissolved the remaining bonds of the Austro-Hungarian empire, increased the work that was desperately needed to be done by the JDC, as did a yearlong war between Russia and Poland in 1920-21. Fought mainly in territories predominantly occupied by Jews, the Russo-Polish War killed several hundred thousand people and left 275,000 orphaned Jewish children. Among those who received help from the Joint in the war's aftermath was author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who much later in life would tell Goldman, "I can still feel the warmth of the blanket I received from the Joint."
The establishment of independent states in Eastern Europe stirred up nationalistic fervor and antagonism toward Jews in countries such as Estonia and Poland in the north and Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in the south. In A Continuing Task: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1914-1964, Oscar Handlin writes that within these economically unstable states:
The desire to encourage national entrepreneurs was often directed at the Jew; the cooperative movement usually supported by the new governments also weakened his position, for he was frequently deliberately excluded from these organizations. Meanwhile he bore a disproportionate share of the heavy taxes, [and] boycotts and quotas undermined the ability of the Jew to compete with his rivals, so that he suffered more than others from the effects of economic dislocation and currency depreciation.
Back in 1917, while the war was still being openly waged, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour had issued an open letter, the Balfour Declaration, which pledged British support for the permanent establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This important document was made partly in response to the rising tide of Jewish refugees from the war and partly in response to pressure from Zionist organizations.
In 1920, Great Britain took dominion over Palestine from Turkey, and Jews' hopes were raised that the Balfour Declaration's promise of establishing a permanent homeland for the world's Jews would be fulfilled. The arrangement was indeed ratified in 1922 by the newly formed League of Nations. It was expected that some refugees of the recent and ongoing European wars would resettle in Palestine, but there were so many Jewish refugees that the absorption of any significant fraction seemed improbable. Moreover, Arabs in Palestine continued to oppose large-scale immigration of Jews; Great Britain yielded to their pressure and set quotas on the number of Jews who could resettle there.
The United States' massive relief effort for Europe was led by engineer Herbert Hoover. Among his other responsibilities, Hoover was given authority over all railroads in Eastern Europe, so that he effectively controlled supply lines for the distribution of relief. At a meeting in 1919, Hoover told JDC President Felix Warburg that Jews would be treated no differently than other war victims, a position that refused to take into account that Jews had previously been singled out for ill treatment in the war-torn lands, or that all signs pointed to a continuation of anti-Semitic policies by the new governments. In exchange for Warburg's pledge of a $3.3 million JDC contribution to the general relief effort, Hoover granted the JDC the right to undertake its own, separate relief efforts to Eastern Europe. This generosity was made possible by donations in 1919-20 that totaled $27 million—equal to about $800 million in today's dollar terms.
JDC efforts in the immediate postwar years included operating soup kitchens; rebuilding hospitals; establishing orphanages and schools; and distributing food, medicine, and clothing throughout Eastern Europe, though principally in Poland. The first organized delegation of JDC workers to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1920 included 126 doctors and other public-health workers, among them Rabbi Bernard Cantor. (Later that year, Cantor and Dr. Israel Friedlander, a distinguished professor at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and also a JDC emissary, were murdered while on a mission to Poland's Marshal Pilsudski to investigate the fate of Ukrainian Jews. It would not be until the year 2000 that the graves of Cantor and Friedlander would finally be discovered in Ukraine.)
For generations, the United States had provided a haven for persecuted European Jews, permitting several million to emigrate and begin new lives. But with the enactment of new immigration laws in 1921, the gates symbolized by the Statue of Liberty began to close, and by 1924, they were firmly locked. The gates would not reopen for a decade.
In reaction to the end of the Russo-Polish War, the murder of two JDC activists, the closing of national frontiers to emigration, and the lessons the JDC had learned from operating in Eastern Europe for a half-dozen years, the JDC's mission and methods evolved. Still perceiving its function as a temporary one, in 1921 the JDC decided to henceforth assist imperiled Jews not by direct relief but through the funding of local, on-site agencies and other Jewish agencies of specific focus, such as ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training), a worldwide vocational training group. Moses A. Leavitt, a JDC executive, expressed the philosophy that underlay the JDC's new direction:
The JDC is a humanitarian agency [that] makes the basic assumption that Jews have a right to live in countries of their birth or in countries of their adoption; they have a right, as human beings, to reside there with full rights.... It is the policy of JDC to help Jews to help themselves. The success of the JDC will lie in the speed with which it can make Jews and Jewish communities self-supporting and, thereby, liquidate its activities.
As part of the new philosophy, the JDC cooperated in the 1920s with the Polish health agency TOZ to enable Polish Jews to assume the management of the organization and to take over a steadily increasing share of its budget. Coordination with the ORT was similarly aimed at the future, since the ORT's mission was to retrain Jews who were no longer able to practice the trades that had once sustained them, and who needed new skills and new occupations. Toward the same goal—self-maintenance—the JDC helped set up over three hundred locally operated Eastern European cooperative credit unions, whose capital assets grew into the millions of dollars, and whose loans established Jewish-owned businesses or enabled them to continue to exist.
The Agro-Joint, the JDC's program in the Soviet Union for the resettlement and retraining of Jews in the western sections of Russia and Ukraine, was a point of pride for the organization for a different reason. During the previous century, relatively few Jews in Eastern Europe or Russia had been farmers, since laws in almost every locale had forbidden Jews to own land. Under the Communist system, land ownership was held by the government, and farming was an occupation open to anyone willing to do the hard labor associated with it. The notion of the JDC working hand-in-glove with Russia's Communist government initially sparked a furor in the governing council of the JDC because some among the leadership did not wish to tacitly condone Communism in any way. But proponents of the idea argued that the JDC's nonpolitical stance permitted it to cooperate with governments whose aims or policies differed from those embraced by the United States. This view eventually won out, and the JDC aided Jews within Russia's borders by teaching 250,000 of them how to farm and by providing the necessary seeds and tools, such as the eighty-six tractors brought over in the program's first year.
The Agro-Joint became a signal success. In 1928, John D. Rockefeller wrote to the American chair of the Agro-Joint that "The studies which my associates have made of the various programs and statistics ... have impressed us all with the value of this activity as a notable and creative example of social engineering." He enclosed a check for $500,000. Herbert Hoover, soon to become president of the United States, also wrote to praise the JDC endeavor.
Smaller JDC programs in the Soviet Union supplied machinery used to manufacture clothing to disenfranchised Jews, enabling them to earn a living in the big cities. These programs also funded a large Jewish dining hall in Moscow, created cooperatives to teach Jews such trades as furniture-making, and helped Jews sent to Siberia to find homes and sustenance during their exile.
The complement to the JDC's nonpolitical stance in its early years was a non-Zionist policy: the organization neither encouraged nor discouraged activity aimed at transplanting Jews from the diaspora to Palestine. When Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann objected to the JDC's spending of millions of dollars to restore Jewish life in Eastern Europe rather than using the money to resettle those Jews in Palestine, JDC leaders and major contributors argued for Jews to have the right to live anywhere and in any manner they wished.
There was equivalent controversy over another tenet of policy that emerged in this era: the belief that the JDC should support Jews remaining in Eastern Europe rather than encouraging emigration. Many American socialists and some German-born Jews in the JDC were indifferent to the desire to build or rebuild Jewish educational and cultural institutions. However, the consensus of JDC leadership favored helping Jews remain in Eastern European countries by providing major support for such institutions.
Having made these arrangements, in the mid-1920s the JDC almost closed up shop entirely. Donations and disbursements fell to little more than a million dollars a year—the lowest level since operations had begun. There was talk of this being a last period for the JDC, of its work "coming to an end." The ORT and other institutes were reaching the point of being self-sustaining, as was the Agro-Joint.
Pogroms and other anti-Semitic excesses in Eastern Europe during the years of 1925-27 provided new impetus to keep the JDC alive, and for donors to contribute to it. But the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression in the United States decreased the ability of the JDC's patrons to donate. In 1932, only $385,000 was raised. Oscar Handlin wrote that in this period, the JDC's "activities were cut to a minimum and its voice was barely audible."
The JDC and World War II, 1933-1945
Hitler's ascension to political power in Germany in 1933 brought with it his belief that Jews were responsible for Germany's economic and social problems, and the passage of the first laws mandating removal of the Jews from civil service and other positions. The JDC transferred its European headquarters from Berlin to Paris and began operating once again on an emergency basis, though its funds were still severely limited by the Depression. As the 1930s continued, and the Depression's economic toll on the United States lessened, more money was found to assist Jews in escaping from Germany, Poland, and Romania, where Nazism and other nationalistic cults made life for Jews increasingly untenable. The JDC's mission had long been referred to as "the three R's": Relief, Reconstruction, and Rescue. Prior to 1933, the organization had focused on Relief and Reconstruction; now in response to the changing needs of the Jewish community, it shifted to the third "R": Rescue. Assistance from the JDC helped a quarter-million Jews to leave Germany and 125,000 Austrian Jews to leave Austria.
Hitler took over Austria and the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia by mid-1938 and was threatening to overrun the rest of Czechoslovakia. In November of 1938, a German embassy official in Paris was assassinated, and the deed was traced to a teenaged Polish Jew, Herschel Greenspan, who had wanted to punish the Nazis for what they were doing to Jews. His deed—and its rationale—was used by the Nazis as an excuse to trigger the outbreak of violence thereafter known as Kristallnacht. On November 8, 1938, roving gangs of German "civilians" in plain clothes (but wearing storm trooper boots) ransacked synagogues and Jewish-owned storefronts in Berlin, killing nearly a hundred Jews and setting off waves of related anti-Semitic violence and further crackdowns on Jews throughout the growing Nazi empire.
In response to Kristallnacht and other Nazi pogroms, the JDC and the other major Jewish fund-raising organization in the United States, the United Palestine Appeal, joined forces to raise money for overseas operations. Together they created the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and collected tens of millions of dollars to help Jews suffering in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It is important to recall that the threat to the Jews of Germany, Austria, and of the other territories annexed by the Nazi regime was not a cause to which all non-Jewish Americans were sensitive in 1936. Although the majority of Americans detested Hitler in 1938, there were many whose sentiments echoed those of right-wing radio priest Father Coughlin, who took to the airwaves to charge that Jewish money had funded the Communist revolution in Russia, and that the anti-Semitic measures being taken by the Third Reich deserved the support of Americans. That entire countries were willing to turn their backs on Europe's Jews was underlined by the plight of the SS St. Louis in 1939, when the JDC-chartered ship bearing nine hundred Jews fleeing Hitler was turned away at every free port in the world and was eventually forced to disembark its passengers again in Europe, where many of them became victims of the Holocaust.
Through the 1930s, the JDC's Morris Troper, Moses A. Leavitt, and Bernard Kahn had taken leading roles in helping Jews emigrate from Europe. In September of 1940, one year after war had begun in Europe, and well before the full horrors of Nazi violence against Jews had become known to the world, Troper told the JDC's board of directors that "I stand before you this morning ... not as Morris Troper alone; I am here as Hirsch of Berlin, Loewenherz of Vienna, as Giterman, Guzik and Neustadt of Poland, as Eppler of Budapest and Friedmann of Prague, Grodzensky of Lithuania, and Ussoskin of Romania.... They have nothing to look forward to except starvation, disease, and ultimate extinction."
Troper told the board that henceforth the JDC's "sacred task" would be to keep alive as many Jewish brethren as possible, in the teeth of the mounting ferocity and diligence with which Hitler and satellite Nazi regimes were pursuing Jews. The vast preponderance of the Jews in the lands occupied by the Nazis—some six million Jews, half the Jews in the world—perished in the Holocaust. But between 1939 and 1944 the JDC was able to aid 81,000 Jews in emigrating from Europe to other countries, to provide support to Jews who had made their own way to Switzerland, and to send money behind Nazi lines to assist Jews. Funds were secretly parachuted into occupied Poland, where $1 million helped keep the Warsaw ghetto's Jews alive and resisting for several years.
Excerpted from I Seek My Brethren by Tom Shachtman. Copyright © 2001 by American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Preface: Moscow, August 19, 1991||xv|
|1||A Brief History of "the Joint"||1|
|2||Preparations: Becoming "Mr. Joint"||20|
|3||Transitions: Ralph Goldman's Early Years With the JDC||47|
|4||Cracking the Wall: The JDC Peers Behind the Iron Curtain||61|
|5||Maintaining a Strong Foundation: The JDC in Israel||91|
|6||Global Jewish Strategy, Step One: Aiding Soviet Jewry||103|
|7||Global Jewish Strategy, Step Two: Helping the World||129|
|8||Opening Doors: The JDC in Eastern Europe, 1979-1983||151|
|9||Packages of Hope: The Azriel Package Program Continues--and Flourishes||174|
|10||Through the Kremlin's Front Door: Reentering the USSR||187|
|11||Keeping Faith With Israel: The JDC's Work in Israel Into the Present||209|
|12||Realizing the Dream: The JDC and the Former Soviet Union Today||228|
|About the Author||266|