Conference Recalls Role of U.S. Jewish Labor During the Holocaust

Though it was “small,” “marginal,” “late in arriving,” and uneven in its flow, the monetary assistance sent to Jews in Poland during the Holocaust by the American Jewish labor movement was “a gesture of fraternity amidst despair,” according to Prof. Kenneth Waltzer of Michigan State University.

Speaking to a conference held March 8-10 under the auspices of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the International Bonhoeffer Society, Waltzer told his listeners that, when news of the mass murders emerged, the Jewish labor leaders “responded actively.”

They pressured the Roosevelt Administration to speak out, tried to mobilize American labor on behalf of rescue, and sent funds illegally, through the London-based Polish government-in-exile, to the Jewish underground in Poland.

The Jewish labor leaders–heads of the needle trades’ unions, fraternal organizations such as the Workmen’s Circle, and Socialist and Yiddish groups–were themselves immigrants with extended family ties in Europe, explained Waltzer. They also had political links to the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland.

As early as 1934, the union leaders had created an umbrella organization, the Jewish Labor Committee, to combat the effects of Nazism. During the war, when accounts of the genocide reached America, they stepped up their activities, noted Waltzer. A mass rally was held in New York’s Madison Square Garden in July 1942, and on December 2, 1942, 500,000 workers in New York stopped work during a Day of Mourning. David Dubinsky, head of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, referred to Poland as “a slaughter house.”

However, though a delegation of leaders met with President Roosevelt a few days later, and a Joint Emergency Committee on European Jewish Affairs was created in 1943, “they produced few results,” observed Waltzer.

At the Bermuda Conference, held in April 1943, “it became apparent the Roosevelt Administration opposed doing much to rescue–or even relieve the condition–of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Many of the Jewish leaders felt they had failed completely. Growing despair set in, and the Joint Emergency Committee collapsed.”

Despite these domestic setbacks, the labor organizations continued to funnel money to the Jewish underground in Poland, via ZEGOTA, the Council for Aid to Jews, set up by the Polish resistance.

Between December 1942 and December 1944, a total of $350,000 was sent, “to sustain the battered remnants of the underground, and to provide food, medicine, clothing, shelter, forged ‘Aryan’ documents, and arms,” said Waltzer. The money was carried into Poland by parachutists wearing special money belts.

Though the amounts raised were “terribly small” by modern standards and arrived mostly after the destruction for the Warsaw and other Jewish ghettos, stressed Waltzer, “the money gave the Jewish underground added respectability with the Polish underground, with whom relations (during the war) were not always cordial.”

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