Proud History, Strong Connection: Reflecting on JDC and Japan

Members of a women’s aid committee in Kobe, Japan, 1941.
Members of a women’s aid committee in Kobe, Japan, 1941. photo: photo credit: JDC Archives

Dov Ben-Shimon

– Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships

After the 2011 “Great East Japan Earthquake” and Tohoku tsunami hit, I spent a considerable amount of time working with our colleagues around the world to raise funds for JDC's amazing rescue operations, in cooperation with the local Jewish community. But again and again, I came back to the concept, often central to our non-sectarian work, of gratitude.

Gratitude to countries and people that had helped the Jews in our past; gratitude to those who had stood up for Israel when we needed them most. How the Haitians had supported the new Jewish state in the 1947 Partition Plan vote in the United Nations. How the Philippines had rescued Jews, including parents of colleagues of mine, from the Nazis.

And in Japan.

My amazing colleagues at JDC Archives equipped me with stunning, beautiful photos from our organization's history — like photos from JDC’s operations in mid-December 1941 (a few days after Pearl Harbor), where we were wrapping up our work and safely transferring thousands of Jews that had been saved by the Japanese in places like Yokohama. There are photos of yeshiva students, kindergartens. Faces of lives saved and generations rescued.

I was remembering these photos the other day with the news of a beautiful video exhibit at Grand Central Station on Japan’s role in saving Jews, reported last week in The New York Times. It was particularly poignant for me because one of the presentations I gave on this aspect of our work was to a women’s leadership group in a Jewish federation here in the United States. I showed the devastation in the Sendai and Fukushima areas. I showed photographs and stories of our work there, and our collaboration with the IDF field hospital. And then I showed the story of our gratitude for the historical rescue of European Jews with photos from our Archives. 

As I came to the final photo on my presentation – a lovely photo of a women’s auxiliary committee meeting in Kobe of JDC supporters – a beautiful elderly woman at this Jewish Federation dinner stood up, and said, "That’s my mom, that’s my piano teacher, and that’s my babysitter," identifying for us the people in the photo. She herself was a little girl standing by the photographer.

Her family had been rescued by the Joint -- and by the Japanese people. And now she was hearing about how we could pay back that historic debt and show our profound gratitude.

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