August 24, 2010

Profile of a JDC Hero

From Steve Schwager, CEO

Dr. Joseph J. Schwartz
A long overdue biography was recently published in Israel on the life of Joseph (Joe) Schwartz, a JDC hero of historic proportions. Written in Hebrew by Ruth Bachi, an Israeli author who previously wrote a biography about Teddy Kollek, this engaging book—featuring a preface by Israeli President Shimon Peres—was acclaimed in Ha’aretz and has stimulated much interest. It has also prompted an exchange of letters in the newspaper from prominent figures including former Israeli Ambassador to the US Moshe Arens and Professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University. I am pleased to share that the author greatly utilized the JDC Archives in conducting research for this book.

Who was Joe Schwartz?

Dr. Joseph J. Schwartz was director of JDC’s overseas operations from 1942-1950. Hundreds of thousands of Jews now in Israel literally owe their lives to him.

Dr. Schwartz joined the JDC staff as its Secretary in 1939. The following year, he traveled overseas for JDC, touring Italy, Switzerland, and Hungary in connection with JDC rescue operations. Following the Nazi occupation of France, Dr. Schwartz moved JDC’s headquarters to Lisbon and helped thousands of Jews escape across the Pyrenees to Spain, while also arranging for their emigration. During these years, Schwartz shuttled back and forth to the US and to the part of France that remained unoccupied, striving to save additional Jews from Nazi terror.

In Lisbon, Dr. Schwartz helped direct extensive aid programs for European Jews trapped in Europe. He worked closely with President Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board in its campaign to assist Nazi victims in German-controlled areas. Approximately 10,000 Jewish children were kept alive in hiding in France because of those efforts. Thousands were given false passports and were helped to escape to safety in Switzerland, Spain, the Balkans, and Palestine.

Dr. Schwartz and the late Saly Mayer, JDC’s representative in Switzerland, worked as a remarkable team that helped dangle the idea of ransom in front of the Nazis for eight months, at the same time winning concessions that led to the cancellation of deportation orders for 200,000 Hungarian Jews scheduled to be transported to Auschwitz.

Immediately after the liberation of France, Dr. Schwartz reestablished his headquarters in Paris and began to organize JDC programs that would help to rebuild life for Europe’s 1.4 million surviving Jews. But the American government also turned to Dr. Schwartz for assistance. In 1945, Dr. Schwartz accompanied Earl Harrison, who had been recruited by President Truman to investigate the conditions of the Jewish displaced persons (DPs) in the American zones of Germany and Austria. Their findings and ultimate report resulted in the improvement of living conditions in the DP camps.

Dr. Schwartz enabled tens of thousands of Jewish DPs to find their way to Palestine as “illegal immigrants” before 1948. In August 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel, Dr. Schwartz met with Israeli officials to plan for future emigration to the new State. The result of these meetings was the historic mass movement of Jews from the world’s distressed areas, especially Operation Magic Carpet from Yemen. This was not an easy task; Dr. Schwartz traveled repeatedly to Israel to iron out problems involving the transportation by JDC of as many as 20,000 Jews each month.

Dr. Schwartz played a key role in creating Malben in Israel in 1949 to care for the elderly, chronically ill, and handicapped Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel.

In that same year, Dr. Schwartz also turned his attention to the wretched living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Muslim lands. He directed and expanded assistance programs, particularly for tens of thousands of children in North Africa.

The globe was his workplace. Early in 1950, Dr. Schwartz’s official duties took him to Tehran, where he organized rescue operations for thousands of Jews who had escaped there from Iraq, and additional thousands of Kurdish Jews who had fled from persecution in the tribal areas in Northern Iran.

Joseph Schwartz was a brilliant and exceptional man. Known as Packy to those close to him, he was born in Ukraine and moved to Baltimore at an early age. A distinguished educator and scholar and an authority on Semitics and Semitic Literature, Dr. Schwartz received his doctorate from Yale, following his graduation from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminary of Yeshiva University. Dr. Schwartz taught at the American University in Cairo and at Long Island University and then served as Director of the Federation of Jewish Charities in Brooklyn. He served the JDC from 1939- 1950/1, and then went on to become the Executive Vice-Chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and later the Vice President of Israel Bonds.

Joe Schwartz died in 1975, leaving behind a legacy of countless good deeds.

Irv and I believe that the lay and professional leaders of JDC are carrying on the tradition of caring for the “world Jewish family” evidenced by the work of Joe Schwartz and his colleagues in the years prior, during, and after World War II. It is a tradition that serves us well and continues to make us proud.

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