How the Jewish Labor Committee became a hero of WWII – the forward


The Jewish Labor Committee remains a little-known Judeo-American institution. Founded in New York in February 1934, it still exists today, representing a Jewish voice in the world of work and a union voice among American Jewish organizations. Since the 1930s, however, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the decline of the labor movement have somehow hidden its existence. Yet the JLC must be remembered for the remarkable operations it was able to achieve during World War II.

Made up of all elements of the non-Communist Jewish left, including the Needle Unions with their many members, and the Workers’ Circle, the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) counted the Jewish Daily Forward as one of its member institutions. eminent. With a circulation of 250,000 copies, the Yiddish daily has brought together readers from Vilnius, Warsaw, New York and Los Angeles, thus maintaining a Yiddish-speaking transatlantic community of linguistic and socialist solidarity which has created a precious link of information while the Anti-Semitic persecutions raged in Europe. Baruch Charney Vladeck, the initiator and first president of the JLC, who was the director of the Forward, could rely on the Yiddish daily to publicize his activities and establish contacts with American and European organizations. Representing a movement of some 500,000 members, the JLC was housed in the Forward Building at 175 East Broadway in New York City.

The founders of the JLC were all former immigrants who arrived in the United States before World War I. In the Russian Empire, they had been part of the revolutionary generation of Bundjst militants engaged in the defense of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish proletariat. Baruch Charney Vladeck, as well as David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman – whose unions have become the main pillars of the institution – among many others, had all had a similar political commitment in their youth. Others, like Jacob Pat, had led the strong Bundist presence in interwar Poland.

How the Jewish Labor Committee became the unsung hero of WWII

In the 1930s, the memory of their own political past prompted them to react immediately to threats from the Nazi regime against Jews and democratic institutions in Europe. “The Jews have always been a real barometer of the workers’ movement,” Vladeck stressed, linking the defense of Jews and that of civil liberties in the same movement. More clairvoyant on these questions than the rest of the American workers, they alerted him to the fate of the political and Jewish victims of the Hitler regime. The JLC’s mission is to fight Nazism in Europe and its repercussions in the United States. In a pragmatic way, he offered to provide relief and refuge to victims of anti-Semitism and political oppression of the Nazi regime. Over the years, the JLC has remained true to its broad, idealistic commitment.

One of its main achievements was the rescue in 1940-1941 of around 1,500 European intellectuals and labor or socialist leaders, mostly Jews, who were saved from deportation and death due to their opposition. to the Nazi regime. During the invasion of France in 1940, the many political refugees who had found temporary refuge in that country suddenly found themselves in a death trap. At the top of the Gestapo, or Mussolini’s police, lists were hundreds of German, Austrian and Italian trade union leaders and political opponents. The former Russian Mensheviks also faced a similar danger due to the German-Soviet Pact.

Reacting quickly to the event of the German occupation of France, the JLC, which over the years had maintained contact with these refugees, succeeded in obtaining temporary visas for the United States for them. Bypassing quota laws, these visas (which also covered dependents of refugees) had to be issued by the American consul in Marseille in order to allow the exfiltration of these people from France, via Spain and Portugal and embark on a boat from Lisbon to New York. The whole administrative effort, not insignificant in terms of the stringency of the State Department’s regulations on immigration matters, was accompanied by financial support to help these families through the ordeals of their exile and of their evacuation.

Led from New York, the JLC rescue operation in France paralleled that led by Varian Fry, the agent in Marseille of the Emergency Relief Committee, well known for saving the lives of many writers, artists and others. opponents of the Nazi regime. The two networks had similar liberal political objectives, but they each protected their own “clients” whose names were communicated by them to the American consul Hiram Bingham.

And while Varian Fry’s operations were supported by wealthy donors from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations or the Museum of Modern Art, the base of solidarity for the JLC was that collectively offered by its labor constituency of needlework workers. For the same reason, Fry’s best-known proteges were from the literary and artistic world, while those rescued by the JLC were Labor and Socialist leaders, including members of the Labor and Socialist International. However, it is thanks to the collaboration in Marseille of the two networks that many refugees have managed to leave France, to escape arrest and to reach the United States.

Along with its operation in Marseille, the JLC also obtained the exfiltration of Polish Bundist refugees in Lithuania who had been forced to leave Poland with the German occupation of their country. And when Lithuania in turn was annexed by the Soviet Union, these refugees were now directly threatened by the Communist authorities. Thanks to a series of miraculous interventions and the guidance of the JLC from New York, several hundred of these people were able to reach the west coast of the United States via a perilous journey through the warring USSR, Japan and across the Pacific. just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry into the war of the United States prohibited any transpacific crossing.

Beyond these rescue episodes, the JLC organized American Labor support for segments of the Resistance in Europe. The presence of these refugees in the United States was invaluable in providing direct information on the clandestine resistance movements in France, Poland, Italy and Norway. In France, for example, the JLC participated in the direct financing of the socialist resistance network. In Poland, the JLC lived and breathed to the rhythm of the tragedy. Informed of the reality of the “final solution” before most American government institutions and authorities, she participated in humanitarian operations and provided financial and moral support to the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto in their last fight against the Wehrmacht. “When the long night was over,” she made a massive contribution to the reconstruction of Jewish life in Poland and other European countries.

Situated at the crossroads of several fields of investigation – Jewish history, studies on immigration and exile, American and international labor history, World War II in France and Poland – the history of the JLC is transnational in nature. It highlights the strength of the links between the Yiddish-speaking Jewish worlds across the Atlantic in New York, Paris and Warsaw. But also presents an unusual aspect of American labor history. Far from the classic description of American labor isolationism and the AFL’s steadfast conservatism, these chapters describe a segment of American labor that has established ties with its counterparts in Europe and set out to save them from the destruction.

Catherine Collomp is the author of “Rescue, Relief and Resistance, The Jewish Labor Committee’s Anti-Nazi Operations” (Wayne State University Press, 2021).


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