Despite the daily accounts of the destruction of European Jewry, the leading American Jewish organizations believed that at the end of the war, there would be a significant number of surviving Jews who would face a multitude of problems.
In The Price of Liberty, A History of the American Jewish Committee, Nathan Schachner wrote that on February 9, 1940, the American Jewish Congress asked the American Jewish Committee to join with the Alliance Israélite Universelle, (an international Jewish organization founded in 1860 by the French statesman Adolphe Crémieux to safeguard the human rights of Jews around the world), and the Board of Deputies of British Jews in establishing a Peace Institute in Geneva under the auspices of the Congress.
The Congress had hoped that although this institute would be established by the World Jewish Congress, every Jewish organization in the US and around the world would cooperate with it. In February and May 1940, the Congress Bulletin reported on the institute, which would become “the instrument of the entire Jewish people for the purpose of obtaining our Jewish peace aims as well as united Jewish front in the fight for Jewish rights, security and freedom of our people everywhere.”
The proposal aroused much discussion in the American Jewish Committee, but they voted against the idea Schachner asserted. Members of the Committee believed it “inadvisable” to participate with the World Jewish Congress because it was “the symbol of the nationalist Jewish Weltanschauung [worldview] with a fundamental position that the Jews are a nation and constitute a separate political entities in the countries in which they live; a position which the Committee had consistently opposed.” They also felt that Geneva was not an appropriate location for the institute, since the city was surrounded by countries under Nazi rule, and that the proposed structure was too elaborate.
The Committee’s refusal to participate in this effort did not suggest an insensitivity to the many critical issues the Jews would encounter at the end of hostilities. At the American Jewish Committee’s annual meeting on January 12, 1941, the delegates heard a report from the Committee on Peace Studies describing the research projects in post-war challenges presented the Research Institute on Peace and Post-War Problems, which was under the direction of Dr. Max Gottschalk the 1941 American Jewish Yearbook reported.
The “magnitude and diversity” of these problems was so “staggering” that the Committee recognized that it would have been “quixotic to pretend” that its own resources or that of any other single organization could adequately deal with all these issues. Yet it did not believe that all institutions devoted to this work should be consolidated into one organization. What is essential, the Committee believed, was that all those engaged in this work should pool their resources to avoid duplication, and that this information be made readily available to those who could put it to good use.
In addition to these two institutes, which began their work in 1941, there were the Research Institute for Jewish Post-War Problems of the Jewish Labor Committee, and a Research Institute of the War Problems of Torah Jewry under the auspices of the American branch of Agudath Israel.
In discussing the need for these preparations, Morris Raphael Cohen, Chairman of the American Jewish Committee’s special commission on peace studies, noted that in the US and the British Commonwealth, a large number of organizations had already given serious thought and study to the problems of ensuring an enduring peace. Among these diverse groups were the Federal Council of Churches, the Catholic Association for International Peace, The American Association of University Woman, The League Nations, the Foreign Policy Association, The Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, The Institute of International Education, and The National Policy Association at Washington D.C.
If Jewish issues in the post-war were to be seriously considered, the Jewish community had to be prepared to present their demands at the peace conference. They could not presume that the democratic powers would understand the unique problems would pose to Jewish survivors. Even the most dedicated friends of the Jewish people were likely to “gloss over” their immediate needs and fail to safeguard their equal rights, a lesson the Jews had learned from their experiences in World War I.
The institutes were also charged with countering the venomous antisemitic propaganda misleading many Jews and Gentiles in the US and provide a true picture of Jewish life under Nazi terror. If American Jews sought the cooperation of its fellow citizens, they needed to be kept informed. American Jews were the only group in position to provide this information.
The American Jewish Year Book of 1941 published the American Jewish Committee’s Report of the Committee on Peace Studies that outlined the issues: relief and rehabilitation, migration and questions about their political, culture and cultural status.
From the experiences of the American Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) and other relief agencies after WWI, members of the Committee recognized that relief would be “of a magnitude and complexity far beyond anything we have ever thought of before.” They expected that more than 5,000,000,000 Jews in Europe and possibly even more in Northern Africa and the Near East who would be “in unprecedented heart-rending distress,” with American Jews being the only ones in position assist them.
The Committee realized that existing agencies, employing current procedures, could not provide adequate help. At that point, they had no idea of how the war would affect their own financial resources. Even if the Committee managed the “superhuman” effort of raising $100,000,000 a year, this would probably be insufficient to fund permanent relief for more than 5,000,000 people.
This daunting task of how to maximize the Committee’s limited resources, in view of this “overwhelming catastrophe,” required extensive study. Though the Committee members understood that definite plans could not be formulated at that point, they wanted to be prepared with information about the political, economic and social conditions in the countries where relief would be needed. The JDC’s experience would be invaluable in administering aid, yet this assistance would be augmented by “the relief and rehabilitation agencies that the Jews have themselves developed.”
“A Surplus Population in Europe”
With regard to migration and colonization, the Committee admitted that “in principle, the Jews are a surplus population in Europe.” Nevertheless, Jews must insist that have been natives of Europe for centuries, that no-non-Jew can claim his family had been there longer, and that Jewish labor and intellect have contributed to the development of these countries, and Jews have sacrificed their lives in their defense. Yet, no matter how entitled Jews are to return to their former homes, hundreds, if not millions of Jews, “will want, or be compelled, to leave Europe” at the end of the war. Questions of where they would go in terms of economic, social, legal, social affairs and climactic considerations, and how will they transported to their new homes, were some of the issues they needed to be addressed.
The possibility of a German-dominated Europe also had to be considered. This required a strategy to counter Nazi plans to expel Jews “to uncivilized territories, without regard to their inhabitability.” There were “reliable reports” that Hitler planned to transport Jews to Madagascar, where they would be promised autonomy. World Jewry would be expected to finance this plan or “it would be carried out in a more brutal way.”
An underlying assumption in this activity was the conviction, at least on an organizational level, that millions of Jews would survive. The institutes had the effect of assuring the average American Jew that there was “a body of Jewish men and women to whom the coming victory is a reality.” Raising the spirits of Jews who had given up hope was clearly an objective.
Significantly, these institutes generated much discussion in the Jewish and non-Jewish press. There were articles in: the Congress Weekly in February, March and October 1941, January and February 1942; Der Tog on July 29, 1941; The Jewish Spectator, March 1941, Jewish Frontier March and October 1941; Forward, July 1941; The Jewish Exponent, May, 1941 and January 1942; The Call December 1941; The New Palestine January and February 1941; Foreign Affairs, January 1942; The New York Times July and December 1941; Christian Science Monitor, August, 1942; Harper’s Magazine, September 1941.
Did the institutes represent an escape from dealing with the rescue of European Jewry? When large numbers of Jews were dying or seeking refuge, and crying to be rescued, why did a number of American Jewish organizations focus on the future? This is the question I posed to Salo Baron, professor of Jewish History and Institutions at Columbia University, who was known as “the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century.”
Baron was among a number of distinguished academics who served on the Committee on Peace Studies of the American Jewish Committee. My question struck a raw nerve. In response to my inquiry, he sent a letter to Yehuda Bauer, a professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars, complaining about the impertinence of my question. As a student of Bauer’s, he wanted him to know of my audacity in asking such a question.
After chastising me, Baron explained that the institutes were created for pure research and constituted but one part of their organization’s total activities on behalf of European Jewry. The institutes developed in response to these real needs and should be viewed in this context.
Many years later, Arthur Hertzberg, a student and an assistant to Baron, told me that Baron’s parents and sister were murdered by the Nazis in Tarnów, Poland. Twenty thousand Jews lived in Tarnow before the war, but after Hitler, there were no more 20. This explained his sensitivity and sense of guilt I had awakened.