Marc Chagall & JDC

Co-authored by Sandy Lenger, JDC Board member, Will Recant, Assistant Executive Vice President, International Development Program, and Rebecca Neuwirth, Director of JDC Ambassadors.

Below are remarks shared at a JDC event around the Marc Chagall exhibit at The Jewish Museum. The event was a cooperation between the JDC Board, JDC Archives, Ambassadors, and Entwine, and brought together different generations for an evening of learning about JDC’s history and work around the world.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. If it were not for you, I would not be here today. I always heard the stories about the Emergency Rescue Committee, but I did not know about who funded it ... And I knew about the orphanage where my grandfather worked and he talked about these children who had nothing to lose …" said Bella Meyer, granddaughter of Marc Chagall and renowned floral designer. 

You may have heard that JDC saved Marc Chagall, rescuing him and his wife, Bella, from the ravages of the Holocaust in 1941. Thanks to JDC, they boarded the SS Mouzhino that sailed with 798 other passengers, among them 130 children taken from French camps -- from Lisbon, Portugal, on June 10, 1941 -- in the midst of war-torn Europe. The ship brought them to safety and a new life in the United States. 

We are all the beneficiaries of JDC’s efforts on behalf of Marc Chagall. Chagall brought so much inspiration and meaning to the world; he told the Jewish story and his own personal story in such a unique and passionate way, a way that has captured the imagination of generations.

Imagine how many other people JDC was able to help survive in those dark days. Not enough, certainly not, but we are so grateful for each person – whether they were renowned artists or “just” mothers or fathers or children. It is as the Talmud teaches us – to save a life is to save the whole world.

When we travel around the world with JDC – to Haiti or to the Philippines, to Argentina or Poland, to Russia or Israel – we often wonder about the people whom we are helping. Some are at the end of their lives: What have they done, who have they taught, how have they lived? And many are still at the beginning, and we wonder – is one of these young people the next Chagall? The next great inventor or thinker or artist, or a future loving mother or grandfather or neighbor or friend?

But the wonderful and very unique aspect of the Chagall-JDC connection was that Chagall was not only helped by JDC, he also stood on the other side. Twenty years before his time of need, in 1921, Chagall was a young artist and in a position to give of his talents and love. He chose to work at an orphanage that JDC ran outside of Moscow for children whose parents had been brutally murdered or fallen victim to famine. In his diary, Chagall speaks with incredible passion about this experience, and how the children, who were traumatized by their suffering, were able to express themselves, and heal, through art and colors.

This was Chagall’s way of very personally taking on the mission that JDC embodies. The responsibility to help others, the opportunity to do so – for indeed, it is a privilege.

And his story brings to life a very profound thought about the human condition. The individual can find himself at moments of strength, when he can offer help; and then quickly, taken up by powers beyond himself, at moments of profound helplessness and need. Marc Chagall's life story also helps us articulate a vision for true community - which can help to soften the extreme ups and downs of life.

Let us end on a quote from Chagall’s own autobiography, My Life, which for me also serves as a call to action: "In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love."

· JDC Ambassadors is the doorway to involvement through philanthropy, learning and travel – more information is here; 2014 travel destinations can be found here.

· JDC Archives houses one of the most significant collections in the world for the study of modern Jewish history – more information is here.

· JDC Entwine is JDC’s young leadership platform, which offers service experiences in Jewish communities around the world, educational events and programs, and leadership development opportunities – more information is here and a list of 2014 Entwine Young Professional Trips can be found here.

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