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Yehuda Bauer: My Brother's Keeper

A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939

[Holocaust preparations in Europe and resistance without solution of the situation]

The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1974

Transcription with subtitles by Michael Palomino (2007)



Chapter 1. A Time of Crisis: 1929-1932

[1.2. Catastrophic situation in Eastern Europe with wars 1919-1922]

[Beginning 1920s: Victory against horrors of war, pestilence and famine - Economic Reconstruction Committee]

The 1920s was, generally speaking, a period of optimism - and not only in the United States. Distaste for war and, in America, a widespread feeling that the United States should never again get itself involved in European quarrels were accompanied by a fervent hope that the horrors of war, pestilence, and famine would now finally be conquered. It is therefore not surprising that JDC should have set up its Economic Reconstruction Committee under Herbert H. Lehman and endeavored to transform itself from a rescue and relief to a rehabilitation agency.

[JDC credits for Jewish masses mainly traders and artisans - cooperative loan kassas (banks) - low interests]

At first, these efforts at reconstruction were directed primarily at Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The Jewish masses there were mainly composed of small traders and artisans, and an effort was made to provide them with cheap credit so that they would be able to compete with their non-Jewish neighbors. Therefore, cooperative loan kassas (banks) were set up, which received credits from JDC and others, collected share capital, invited savings deposits, and handed out credits at an interest rate lower than that charged by the banks.

Healthy business principles demanded that short-term deposits not be accepted, that arrears in repayment of interest or capital of the loan be dealt with very strictly, and that credit be given only to credit-worthy people. Naturally, American credits granted to these kassas were to be repaid punctually and promptly.

[JDC tactics: Teaching business principles for self-help]

Generally speaking, the idea was that, with a few exceptions, East Europeans did not really understand business principles but they could be taught; this would enable them to rebuild their economy on a sound foundation.

There were certain principles which JDC carefully observed. (p.23)

First of all, JDC was not a political organization. This meant that it could not get involved in any political argument with Jews or non-Jews and that it tried to be impartial to all Jewish factions. With the complications of Jewish political life, this was an ideal that was not easily attained, and naturally JDC had its sympathies and antipathies - because, in fact, JDC was Kahn and three or four people in New York.

[JDC tactics: Free of any political involvement]

Nevertheless, despite these conditions JDC remained remarkably free of any political involvement and remarkably impartial in its operations, and it did manage to become recognized as probably the only really nonpartisan organization in Jewish life. This did not mean that JDC was nonpolitical in a European sense - that is, unconnected with the government. While there was no government intervention in its activities, JDC was careful to obtain Washington's consent for certain foreign programs. This was always given in a friendly but noncommittal form.

[JDC tactics no. 1: Coordination with US government - example Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg]

Thus, when JDC was about to embark on a drastic expansion of its Russian work in early 1928, Louis Marshall wrote to Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, that "before we took any steps in this direction we communicated our plans to the Department of State and were assured that there was no reason why we should not carry on this work."

Kellogg replied on May 9. "I may say, however, that the Department sees no reason, from the point of view of national policy, to interpose any objection to your participation in the work of Jewish land settlement in Russia along the lines set forth in your letter."

He added, however, that whatever JDC did in Russia was done at its own risk.

(End note 1: AJ (Agro-Joint files) 36, 4/30/28)

[JDC tactics no. 2: Teaching business principles for self-help]

Another JDC principle was its determination to help Jews to help themselves. It had come into existence as a relief agency, and despite hopes to the contrary, rescue and relief were always part of its operation. But the aim was neither relief nor rescue by themselves; the aim was to help Jews rebuild their lives as self-respecting, upright, independent human beings, who would neither rely on humiliating doles nor have to seek them.

There was a definite feeling for the essential dignity of human existence, and (p.24)

this is perhaps one of the finest values upheld by JDC in its operations. Thus, Hyman wrote that "Dr. Kahn's policy has been to reconstruct, rehabilitate and make self-supporting those elements in the Jewish population which are physically and mentally capable of establishing themselves on a permanent self-supporting basis, in order that these people may eventually help their local social problem and bring assistance to the sick, deformed, defective, aged, etc."

(End note 2: File 1, 7/25/29 [25 July 1929])

At the same time, this was interpreted in a characteristic way: strict business principles had to be adhered to, and insistence on repayment of loans was emphasized in circumstances where at least an argument could have been made for a more lenient method of operation.

[JDC tactics no. 3: The right for all Jews to live in their home country - no emigration]

A third principle JDC always adhered to was "that Jews have a right to live in countries of their birth, or in a country of their adoption."

(End note 3: Nathan Reich, JDC Primer (1945), JDC Library)

This was thought of as representing the American point of view of providing opportunity for all. Though undoubtedly influenced by American ideological concepts, this was in fact an old idea in Reform Judaism, brought over in 1848 by German Jews.

This ideal was perhaps accepted at international conferences and talked about by statesmen all over the world, but it was strangely out of touch with the realities of Jewish existence. Admittedly, for a short period in the 1920s it seemed as though this concept might ultimately prevail, but later developments made it look completely unrealistic. In effect, it tended to cause JDC to view with some hesitation any movement tending to advance emigration projects as a solution to Jewish problems. Kahn "emphasized that the Jew must be helped where he is; the Russian Jewish question must be solved in Russia, the Palestine question in Palestine, the German-Jewish problem in Germany, etc."

(End note 4: File 39, 11/18/31 [18 November 1931])

[Since 1930s: JDC tactics no. 3 changes: Emigration is supported]

In practice, this attitude was untenable, and as the 1930s progressed and the rule of law and humanity regressed in Europe, JDC was forced to support emigration of Jews as the occasion demanded. The hope of the permanent settlement of the Jewish question in the various countries of residence, the basic dream of the permanence of Diaspora life in which Reform Judaism believed (p.25)

with fervor, had to be modified, in practice if not in principle. JDC showed a remarkable capacity to interpret its own tenets elastically, even to the point of negating them - a way of solving contradictions between theory and practice not unknown to Jewish tradition.

[JDC tactics no. 4: Supervise the administration of the help]

Finally, there was the assumption - not really clearly stated anywhere, but implied everywhere - that the help given by JDC entitled it to supervise closely the administration of such aid.

[JDC tactics no. 5: Support of other help organizations]

At the same time, JDC always worked through local agencies or supported quasi-independent organizations to do specific jobs.

[JDC critic Louis Berg: JDC gives money without vote]

A critic of JDC, Louis Berg, wrote in the Menorah Journal of June 1929 that "the leaders of JDC have never hidden their belief that the gigantic work of rehabilitating East European Jewry cannot be undertaken by the masses, but can best be performed by a few reliable and well-informed leaders, and a disciplined organization, within which there are no dissenting voices. Precisely as Mr. Louis Marshall said at this conference [in May 1929]: 'The work was so conducted that we would dispose of millions of dollars without a vote being taken.' "

(End note 5: File 42)

While JDC was not a democratic mass organization, it did of course operate within proper statutory requirements. But, as with many organizations, the formal structure was carried by informal ties such as friendships, personal contacts, and so on, and formal decisions often merely finalized arrangements that had been previously agreed to. Berg saw the negative side of this procedure;

[JDC structure: Aristocratic with "elasticity"]

but given the quasi-aristocratic character of JDC, there was an elasticity and an efficiency in its operations that was altogether admirable.

[JDC tactics no. 4: Supervise the administration of the help - depends on the mentality]

The desire to supervise the administration of aid efficiently without resorting to degrading methods of doles and relief seemed to contradict the policy of supporting and developing local agencies. In actual fact there was no hard-and-fast line. With a strong and independent community - German Jewry, for instance - supervision was minimal. In other places, JDC officials for all practical purposes administered not only the funds but the institutions supported by them, indirectly and sometimes even directly. This was (p.26)

bound to create bad feelings on occasion, and the cases had to be judged on their merits as they came up. However, JDC never ran a bureaucratic apparatus interfering with practically every aspect of Jewish life, such as other Jewish organizations (like the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) in Argentina) were sometimes wont to do. Whatever the deviation from stated principle, the idea of helping Jews to help themselves, of authentic Jewish communal independence, was always upheld in the end. This made JDC, despite a great deal of criticism, an organization popular with the Jews all over crumbling Jewish Europe.

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