A century of search and rescue

The JDC has been pulling Jews - and others - out of danger for over 100 years


On February 11, 2015 - the day world leaders gathered in Minsk to hammer out a ceasefire deal for war-ravaged eastern Ukraine - more than 130 Jews were being safely transported out of the conflict zone to Dnepropetrovsk.

There, in Ukraine's third largest city, these refugees came into the care of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which had aided the evacuation carried out by the Ukrainian authorities.

The daring operation had begun in the morning under shelling. The refugees - half of whom were elderly - were members of the Jewish communities of Donetsk and Gorlovka, and had previously been assisted by the JDC.

Seven buses and minivans carried them away from the war zone, arriving at JDC-run temporary refugee camps in Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporizhia in the afternoon.

At the camps and at Hesed social welfare centres in the area, the refugees - including 45 children and young adults and 70 pensioners - received accommodation, food, medicine, medical care, education and trauma counselling.

"We came from the darkness into the light," said Anna Solodar, 69, who was rescued from a small village near Donetsk, together with her disabled son. "I'll always remember what JDC has done for us."

Born in 1914 and forged in the crucible of the First World War, the JDC has long been carrying out relief and rescue work.

From Ukraine to Ethiopia, war-torn Sarajevo to the displaced persons camps of post-Holocaust Europe, the JDC has been and remains today the only Jewish organisation - aside from the Jewish Agency - with the experience, resources and connections to save Jews and non-Jews alike from war and strife.

The JDC has become a "world organisation", Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer has hypothesised, one that relies on the "wealth and contribution of American Jews".

It was born of the urge to help the most vulnerable Jews of Europe, in its own words "an obligation to tzedakah, to contribute to the welfare and well-being of children and old people who could not support themselves". The JDC's experience of wartime Europe laid the ground for its global reach today.

Perhaps more commonly known throughout Europe as the Joint, the origin of the JDC is to be found in a cable sent on August 31, 1914 by Henry Morgenthau Sr, then the American ambassador to Turkey, to the New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff, asking for $50,000 to help Jewish olim in Palestine. Within a month, the money was raised. With war breaking out across Europe, subsequent appeals for relief - particularly in Russia and central and eastern Europe - and the need to co-ordinate a response, led to the creation of what would become known as the JDC.

The JDC's 100-year history is marked by a series of operations and campaigns to alleviate the suffering of those affected by war.

At the midnight of Jewish history, in 1939, the JDC was able to help around 110,000 German Jews emigrate - against the backdrop of economic depression in the United States. It helped a further 81,000 Jews flee Europe up until 1944.

In 1940, the JDC was helping refugees in transit in more than 40 countries.

After the war, when millions of Europeans were displaced, including around 75,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust crowded into displaced persons camps, the JDC was one of a number of organisations on the ground providing humanitarian aid and relief.

In Aharon Appelfeld's novel Tzili, he describes his protagonist - a refugee and survivor of the Holocaust - arriving in Zagreb, a "strange, half-ruined city", to find the JDC "distributing biscuits, canned goods, and coloured socks from America". Women rushed to get boxes of dresses and shoes; "Tzili received a red dress, a petticoat, and a pair of high-heeled shoes. A heavy smell of perfume still clung to the crumpled goods."

As with many stateless Holocaust survivors, Tzili's wish was to go to Palestine. Zionism took root and flourished in persons' camps across Europe. At a time when aliyah was being severely and cruelly restricted by the British, the JDC provided funding and supplies to Bricha and Aliya Bet, underground Zionist organisations that were trying to get Holocaust survivors out of Europe and into Palestine. The JDC also supplied medical, educational, and social services in the British interment camps in Cyprus. In the end, around half of the Jewish refugees ended up in Palestine.

Once Israel existed, the JDC played a vital role in enabling the safe passage of olim to the Jewish state. Between June 1949 and September 1950 the JDC organised and financed Operation Magic Carpet - the airlifting of Jews en masse out of Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea, on flights to Israel chartered by Alaska Airlines.

As part of the operation, which cost $3.5 million, the JDC organised educational, vocational and language classes to prepare immigrants for their new lives in Israel.

The JDC also financed Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, a series of airlifts from Baghdad, which took place throughout 1951 and 1952. Most of the 130,000 Jews of Iraq emigrated to Israel this way.

The JDC was also closely involved in 1991's Operation Solomon in Ethiopia. Early that year, they, along with the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, set up a secret network of local Jews to transmit information around the country and prepare for the day when Ethiopian Jewry would be allowed to leave for Israel. In 1991, Ethiopia was in the grip of civil war, and by May of that year, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front was close to capturing Addis Ababa and overthrowing the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

By 10am on May 24, thousands of Jews were streaming towards the Israeli embassy. Firefights were breaking across the city. People had left their homes so quickly that women were stopping to give birth. Over two days, 14,000 Jews were airlifted out of Ethiopia to Israel on military planes. One El Al Boeing 747 carried 1,122 passengers on a single flight.

After the operation, the JDC was involved in the often difficult effort to integrate Ethiopian Jewry into Israeli society.

Prior to the establishment of direct flights between the Soviet Union and Israel in January 1990, the JDC, with aid from the United States Refugee Programme, helped process emigrating Soviet Jews, first in the mid-to-late 1970s, and then again in the late 1980s.

Working out of Vienna and Rome, the JDC assisted waves of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact states with housing, food, clothing, medical care and social services. It helped around 18,000 from Hungary in 1956; 2,400 from Czechoslovakia in 1968; 12,000 from Poland in 1968; and 51,000 from the Soviet Union in 1979, and another 58,000 in 1989.

The JDC has not only helped Jews. In the early 1990s, the Jews of Bosnia-Herzegovina found themselves caught up in an ethno-nationalist conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Throughout 1992, the JDC staged air and road rescue missions to gradually remove Sarajevo's Jewish community from harm. However, many non-Jews, some of whom were married to Bosnian Jews, were given safe passage out of the war zone.

Until the end of the war in 1995, the JDC and its partners helped evacuate, house, feed and provide medical care for as many as 3,600 people. Half of them were Jewish; half were not.

A New York Times article from November 1992 noted that "no group has been more successful than the Jews" at getting people out of the Bosnian war.

"Everything the [Jewish community] centre" - La Benevolencija - "has done for Jews, has also been done for others," correspondent John F Burns noted.

A century after its founding, the JDC is active in over 70 countries around the world, supporting the rejuvenation of Jewish life in central and eastern Europe, funding programmes to nurture the next generation of Jewish leaders and, through social work, assisting some of the world's poorest Jews. In its attempts to relieve and rescue refugees, the JDC is most present today in the Ukraine and among Syrians in Europe and the Middle East.

For two years as the lead partner in the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR), the JDC has sought to address the needs of Syrian refugees in Jordan through medical, nutritional, and psychosocial care.

With winter approaching, and in the absence of a co-ordinated response from national governments, the JDC and JCDR's interventions in the war in Ukraine and Europe's refugee crisis are both necessary and welcome.

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