The Jewish Labor Committee remains a little known Jewish-American institution. Founded in New York in February 1934, it still exists today representing a Jewish voice in the world of labor and a labor voice among Jewish-American organizations. Since the 1930’s, however, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the decline of the labor movement have somehow concealed its existence. Yet, the JLC should be remembered for the remarkable operations it was able to achieve during World War II.
Composed of all the elements of the non-communist Jewish left, among which were the needle trades unions with their numerous memberships, and the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) counted the Jewish Daily Forward as one of its prominent member institutions. With its circulation of 250,000, the Yiddish daily brought together readers from Vilnius, Warsaw New York and Los Angeles, thus maintaining a Yiddish-speaking transatlantic community of linguistic and socialist solidarity that created a precious bond of information when antisemitic persecution was raging in Europe. Baruch Charney Vladeck, the JLC initiator and first president, who was the manager of the Forward, could rely on the Yiddish daily to spread the news of its activities and establish contacts with American as well as European organizations. Representing a movement of some 500,000 members, the JLC was hosted in the Forward building, at 175 East Broadway in New York.
The JLC founders were all former immigrants who had reached 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 Jewish, Yiddish-speaking proletariat. Baruch Charney Vladeck, as well as David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman — whose trade unions became the main pillars of the institution — among many others, had all had a similar political engagement in their youth. Others, like Jacob Pat, had been leaders of the strong Bundist presence in interwar Poland.
How the Jewish Labor Committee became the unsung heroes of World War II
In the 1930’s, remembrance of their own political past moved them to react immediately to the threats of the Nazi régime against Jews and democratic institutions in Europe. “Jews have always been a true barometer for the labor movement,” Vladeck emphasized, linking the defense of Jews and that of civil liberties in the same movement. More clear-sighted on these issues than the rest of American labor, they alerted it to the fate of political and Jewish victims of the Hitler régime. The JLC made it its mission to combat Nazism in Europe and its repercussions in the United States. Pragmatically, it offered to provide relief and refuge to victims of antisemitism and political oppression by the Nazi regime. Through the years, the JLC was true to its broad idealistic engagement.
One of its major accomplishments, was the rescue in 1940-1941 of about 1500 European intellectuals and labor or socialist leaders, most of them Jews, who were saved from certain deportation and death because of their opposition to the Nazi régime. When France was invaded in 1940, the many political refugees who had found a temporary haven in this country suddenly found themselves in a death trap. Listed at the top of the Gestapo lists, or that of the Mussolini police, were hundreds of German, Austrian and Italian labor leaders and political opponents. Former Russian Mencheviks also faced a similar danger because of the German-Soviet pact.
Reacting quickly to the event of the German occupation of France, the JLC which through the years had maintained contact with these refugees, managed to obtain temporary visas for them for the United States. Circumventing the quota laws, these visas (which also covered the refugees’ dependents) were to be delivered by the American consul in Marseille in order to allow these persons’ exfiltration from France, via Spain and Portugal and board a ship from Lisbon to New York. The whole administrative endeavor, no small feat regarding the stringency of the State Department’s regulations on immigration issues, was accompanied by monetary support to help these families through the ordeals of their exile and evacuation.
Directed from New York, the JLC rescue operation in France was parallel to that managed by Varian Fry, the agent in Marseille of the Emergency Rescue Committee, well-known for saving the lives of many writers, artists and other opponents of the Nazi régime. 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 the Rockefeller Foundations or the Museum of Modern Art, the JLC’s basis of solidarity was that collectively offered by its working class constituency of needle trades workers. For the same reason , Fry’s best known protégés belonged to the world of letters and art, while those saved by the JLC were labor and socialist leaders, including members of the Labor and Socialist International. Yet it was thanks to the collaborative efforts in Marseille of the two networks that many refugees managed to leave France, escape arrest and reach the United States.
Simultaneously with its operation in Marseille, the JLC also secured 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 its turn was annexed by the Soviet Union, these refugees were now directly threatened by the Communist authorities. In a series of miraculous interventions, and the JLC’s guidance from New York, several hundreds of these persons were able to reach the US West Coast via a perilous journey through antagonistic USSR, Japan, and across the Pacific just before the Pearl Harbor attack and the United States’ entry into the war barred any transpacific crossing.
Beyond these rescue episodes, the JLC organized American Labor’s support of segments of the Resistance in Europe. The presence of these refugees in the United States was precious to provide direct information about underground resistance movements in France, Poland, Italy, Norway. In France, for instance, 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 institutions and government authorities, it took part in humanitarian operations and provided financial and moral support to the combatants of the Warsaw ghetto in their last stand against the Wehrmacht. “When the long night was over”, it massively contributed to the reconstruction of Jewish life in Poland and other European countries.
Situated at the crossroads of several fields of inquiry — Jewish history, immigration and exile studies, American and international labor history, Word War II in France and in Poland — the history of the JLC is by nature transnational. It brings to the fore the strength of ties 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 US labor isolationism, and AFL immutable conservatism, these chapters depict a segment of American labor that established links with its counterparts in Europe and made it its task to rescue them from destruction.
Catherine Collomp is the author of “Rescue, Relief and Resistance, The Jewish Labor Committee’s Anti-Nazi Operations” (Wayne State University Press, 2021).