American Jewry and the Holocaust

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Bauer, Yehuda. American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1939-1945. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981.


American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1939-1945 is actually the second of two books by Yehuda Bauer about the AJJDC (henceforth “the Joint”, which is what the organization is generally referred to by Holocaust scholars). His first book is entitled My Brother’s Keeper: A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1929-1939. The title of the first volume (My Brother’s Keeper) very well could have been the title of both books. The Joint was an organization founded in 1914 to facilitate the distribution of funds donated by Jews for overseas aid. Between 1914-1929, the Joint collected 78.7 million dollars and built a monopoly on overseas aid, mainly sending money and packages to Jews in poverty-stricken Eastern Europe and, in the 1930s, assisted in raising money for Jewish immigration out of Europe.

Bauer’s book begins with the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the book proceeds in a loose chronology, ending abruptly in the spring of 1945 with the end of the war. The book discusses how the Joint worked with the multitude of contentious Jewish organizations in the United States and abroad, and how they continued to provide aid in the various European nations after the war broke out. Even before the outbreak of war, Jews in Europe were dependent on the Joint for immigration and food aid. This only increased when the war began, and here, Bauer begins to focus on a different location for each chapter. In Poland, for instance, the Joint separated their activities into four areas (also based on the German-Soviet divisions of Poland), with specific problems and concerns in each area. It was very difficult to get aid from the United States into Europe, so the Joint authorized its representatives to borrow money to be paid back after the end of the war. This allowed them to get a few food shipments into the ghettos and to provide some schooling and support for craft and agricultural education.

The Joint also focused on rescue, though even these attempts were complicated by rivalries within the Jewish community. In Lithuania, American Orthodox rabbis pressured the Joint to give special consideration to rabbis and rabbinical students. Yeshiva students who managed to get to Shanghai annoyed the Joint by insisting on private housing and the right to study full-time rather than work for the community. Towards the end of the war, the Joint was involved in funding the War Refugee Board, the American agency dedicated to rescue operations. Saly Mayer, the Joint’s representative in Switzerland, became involved in complicated negotiations with the Nazis, who were offering to “sell” Jews for ransom. These negotiations, which Mayer dragged out as long as possible, undoubtedly saved lives.

The Joint’s representatives performed heroics with little money and incredibly difficult circumstances. They Joint itself plays an important role in Holocaust history; not unlike Forrest Gump, the Joint is constantly in the background. Their funding, through the WRB, got to Raoul Wallenberg. Emmanuel Ringelblum, organizer of the Oneg Shabbat archive in Warsaw, was a Joint representative. Saly Mayer negotiated in the infamous “Blood for Trucks” deal. Morris Troper, the Joint’s European representative in 1939, managed to convince the British, French, and Dutch to accept the passengers on the MS St. Louis so that they did not have to be returned to Europe.

As a history of the United States during World War II, American Jewry and the Holocaust is lacking. Bauer’s book is a history of one American organization and its overseas operations, not a history of the various Jewish communities during the war. However, Bauer’s description of the activities of the Joint certainly adds to our knowledge of the history of the Holocaust and the difficulties of overseas aid operations during the war.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

Bauer's book is quite interesting, though at times difficult to follow. He assumes a moderate knowledge of Holocaust history, as he drops names, places, and acronyms familiar only to those who have previously studied the topic. For those able to follow him, though, American Jewry and the Holocaust is an excellent book, providing a narrative of rescue and aid which lends a new thread winding through the history of the Holocaust. Even though I have studied the Holocaust for the past ten years, I was surprised to learn how much the Joint was involved with in wartime continental Europe.

Bauer's organization, both chronological and by location, can also be confusing. He focuses on Poland in several chapters throughout the book, and depends on the reader to remember where he previously left off and all the personalities involved. However, I could not think of a better organization, since he is discussing the history of several continents spanning a number of years and vastly different situations. Bauer really hits his stride toward the end of the book, as he is discussing the various ransom negotiations between Joint representatives and the Nazis in 1944. Bauer's recent book Jews for Sale (2009) lends credence to the idea that even in 1981, this was an area of particular interest to him.

This book is highly recommended for students of the Holocaust. Though the book is not necessarily appropriate for a 20th century American history course, as the focus is almost entirely in activities in Europe, Bauer's book is still an interesting view of American Jewish rescue activities.

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