Zionism as a source of contention World Jewish Congress v. Joint Distribution Committee

Created by Abby Gondek, Morgenthau Scholar-in-Residence, FDR Presidential Library and Museum

This exhibit is part of the Morgenthau Holocaust Collections Project, a digital history and path-finding initiative to raise awareness of the FDR Library's unique but under-explored resources for Holocaust Studies. The goal of the Morgenthau Project and my role as Scholar-in-Residence is to open new pathways for find-ability, using digital scholarship to explore these Holocaust-related records.

The tensions between the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or Joint) and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) were reported not only by governmental representatives but also by the organizations themselves. John Pehle, the Executive Director of the War Refugee Board, was “disturbed” by this “friction” which he felt would interfere with rescue and held to his position that the destination of the refugee children from France should only be decided once they were “definitively saved.”

John Pehle, Executive Director, War Refugee Board, FDR Library, General Photograph Collection, John Pehle folder, NPx88-1 (288)A, March 21, 1944

This cable demonstrates the conflict between Zionist (WJC) and non-Zionist (Joint or JDC) organizations about where the children from France should be sent. Raymond Henry Norweb (the Ambassador to Portugal) to Cordell Hull (Secretary of State), Cable no. 1168 Section 2, page 2, April 19, 1944, War Refugee Board, Box 46, Folder 15

Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, FDR Library, General Photo Collection, Cordell Hull: Alone Folder, NPx74-20: 608 p. 97, April 5, 1933

The World Jewish Congress was Zionist and wanted the children to be sent to Palestine. In addition, the WJC, through its contacts with underground movements, used “illegal” means to help refugees; in contrast the Joint was “neutral on the Zionist question” and preferred legally acceptable methods of aid. Even if the Joint did not have a preference for sending the children to Palestine, the Lisbon headquarters of the Joint arranged for Jewish children escaping France to be sent to Palestine in the summer and fall of 1944. Raymond Henry Norweb (the Ambassador to Portugal) stated: "For [Palestine] visas are immediately available here with preference for children." However he also explained that this was a "problem" between "Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish organizations." Norweb felt that from Portugal it would be easier and less expensive to send the children to Palestine than to the U.S. But he asked for advice from the State department and the War Refugee Board.

Robert C. Dexter to John Pehle, “Preliminary Report on Activity for Refugees in Portugal for War Refugee Board,” MD 726, (April 26, 1944): 229.

Pedro Correa Martín-Arroyo, “Europe’s Bottleneck: The Iberian Peninsula and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933-1944” (PhD diss., London School of Economics, Department of International History, 2018), 254-255.

As of April 22, 1944, children began to arrive in Spain; the JDC took credit for their escape through the Pyrennes. Norweb conveyed a message from Joseph Schwartz (the JDC rep. in Lisbon) to Moses Leavitt (JDC in NYC): “six children arrived in Spain as first group and more are expected to follow...guides arranged by us brought them thru Pyrennes and they are now in our care in Barcelona...will attempt to provide children with visas under US commission plan or, in case of those having close relatives there or preferring Palestine, certificates for Palestine." On May 1, Hull relayed a message from Pehle to Robert Dexter (the WRB rep. in Lisbon) that the World Jewish Congress (and its rep. Isaac Weissman) should cooperate with the Joint Distribution Committee and its representative Joseph Schwartz. In his cable to Robert Dexter, Pehle argued that the rescue program would be "greatly endangered" and fewer lives saved if these two organizations (one Zionist and one not) would not cooperate. In addition, Pehle made implicit reference to Palestine when he stated that the "problem" of where the children would go, should only be decided once they had been saved.

Norweb to Cordell Hull, conveying a message from Joseph Schwartz to Moses Leavitt, Cable no. 1214, April 22, 1944, WRB, Box 46, File 15.

Hull to Norweb (relaying message from Pehle to Dexter), at the American Legation in Lisbon, Portugal, cable no. 1229, May 1, 1944, WRB, Box 46, File 15.

Robert C. Dexter, Executive Director of the Unitarian Service Committee and later the WRB rep. in Lisbon, Portugal. The Detroit Free Press, November 23, 1940, p. 4, accessed via newspapers.com

Also on May 1, Weissman (WJC) reported to Rabbi Wise that the Joint would not collaborate or finance rescued children unless the children were handed to them. Weissman felt it was “indispensable” that “arriving orphans” be kept in the WJC’s care to prepare them for departure to Palestine.

Norweb in Lisbon to Secretary of State, conveying a message from Weissman to Rabbi Stephen Wise and the WRB, “Cable 1317, WRB no. 15,” MD Vol. 726 (May 1, 1944): 120.

Joseph Schwartz, Chairman of Executive Council, JDC, 1945-48, Paris, USHMM, Photo id: 49096, Displaced Persons/Return to Life - DP Policy/Administration - General. Courtesy of Norbert Wollheim.

Joseph Schwartz (JDC) in Lisbon sent a cable to Moses Leavitt (JDC) in NYC to advise him that the World Jewish Congress representative (probably Isaac Weissman) had set up "separate relief child care facilities for children who may arrive from France." Schwartz seemed alarmed since this representative refused to "avail himself of existing facilities"; Schwartz explained that the "alleged" reason for this was that the JDC opposed the children's immigration to Palestine. In addition, this representative was claiming that he had "authorization" from his central office in New York, even though Arieh Tartakower (the director of relief/rehabilitation of the WJC in New York) told Schwartz that this was not true. No children had yet arrived, but these arrangements were causing "confusion" for the embassies and community members. He asked Leavitt to "clarify with World Jewish Congress," exactly what their plans were. This demonstrates that the organizations themselves believed their work to be in conflict. The WJC set up separate facilities (thus creating competition over the same population of children refugees) and claimed it was because the JDC opposed immigration to Palestine.

Cable from Joseph Schwartz to Moses Leavitt (JDC in NYC), May 6, 1944, WRB, Box 46, Folder 15.

The WRB was "deeply disturbed" about the "friction" between the JDC and the WJC in Portugal; Pehle feared it would "interfere with the actual rescue of children from France." Pehle asked Robert Dexter to use his power as the WRB representative there to "prevent competitive duplication" since the main goal was the "saving of lives." Pehle additionally stated that while the WRB "appreciated" having Isaac Weissman's (WJC) perspectives, they wanted to hear from Joseph Schwartz (JDC representative) and Dexter. Pehle reiterated that the decision about where to send the children should only be made "after they have been saved." He reminded Dexter that there were 1000 US visas and Canadian visas (number unspecified) available for the children in Spain and Portugal. There were also Palestine certificates available. The last part of the cable emphasized that the WRB would not be financing this rescue or maintenance effort but instead would rely on "private organizations" unless funds were inadequate. Pehle reminded Dexter of the license provided to the JDC to carry out rescue from Portugal and of the substantial funds the JDC had available. The WJC had applied for a similar license, and the WRB had recommended that a license be issued to them.

John Pehle to Robert Dexter (WRB rep. in Portugal), Cable No. 16, page 1-2, May 6, 1944, WRB, Box 46, Folder 15.
Created By
abby gondek