On the 75th Anniversary of V-E Day, Celebrating JDC’s Lifesaving Post-War Relief Effort

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, JDC Writer and Historical Advisor Ilana Stern explores JDC's lifesaving post-war relief effort, as well as how it can inspire hope during the coronavirus pandemic.

By Ilana Stern - JDC Writer and Historical Advisor | May 8, 2020

Today is the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, the day in 1945 that marked the Allied Forces’ final victory over the Nazis in Europe. The Nazis’ surrender brought World War II to an end on the Continent, though not in the Pacific theater of war. 

It might not surprise you to learn that JDC did not wait for that formal moment of surrender to rush to meet the desperate needs of Jews who had barely survived the Nazi horrors, many of whom were hovering near death. Its representatives entered the liberated areas of Europe in 1944 on the heels of the Allied Forces, building on rescue and relief efforts that JDC had managed to continue throughout the war years, and setting the stage for the massive post-Holocaust assistance program that is a hallmark of JDC’s history—and an unprecedented chapter in the annals of philanthropy. 

Today, as we confront the Covid-19 pandemic and strive to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of our clients who are more vulnerable than ever in these anxious and difficult times, we can take inspiration from knowing that at an earlier moment of great peril, JDC and its generous supporters rose to meet challenges of staggering proportions, both in the DP (Displaced Persons) camps set up in Germany, Austria, and Italy, and in Jewish communities across the Continent that were just beginning to struggle back to life. 

JDC Chairman Paul Baerwald, writing in our 1945 Annual Report, gave full credit to the Jewish communities in the US, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America whose outpouring of financial support made JDC’s work possible, and he described the arc of JDC’s activities:

“At the beginning of 1945, the greater portion of Europe was still a terrifying question mark. Although all the eastern areas of France and much of Italy had been liberated, we still did not know what was happening in the center of the Continent. Each month, from January to May, we learned a little more.  

“After May 8th, we discovered the full grim truth — that out of the 6,500,000 Jews who had been in Europe outside of the Soviet Union, less than 1,500,000 survived. Those who lived were homeless, sick, and destitute. 

Goods purchased by JDC in Palestine for shipment to European Holocaust survivors in 1945, one of countless emergency shipments rushed to survivors that year.

“Even before the facts were revealed, the JDC went into action.  

“Our first task was to keep the survivors alive, to relieve their suffering and make them whole again. Under the inspiring leadership of Dr. Joseph J. Schwartz, Chairman of our European Executive Council, representatives took up their posts as speedily as possible in all the critical areas, including the former concentration camps of Germany and Austria. They began to bring in urgently needed help, consisting of all the necessities of life that could be transported to the survivors in Europe.” 

Today, with supply chain problems such a dominant feature of our news cycle, we can better understand the obstacles that JDC was up against in 1945 when, as Baerwald put it: “Vitally needed food had to be purchased in the midst of scarcity; and blankets, shoes, clothing, and medicines had to be collected in a world still dedicated to filling military needs and at least partially beset by inflation. 

“After the necessary supplies were obtained, there was a new difficulty in securing shipping space. Finally, and most complicated of all, was the task of overland transportation through countries where railroads and rolling stock had been destroyed.” 

In spite of these problems, Baerwald concluded, by the end of 1945, “it was increasingly apparent that in this battle to save the remnant of Europe’s Jews, substantial gains had been made. Slight signs of stability in Jewish life had gradually appeared in Western Europe. Conditions in Central Europe, although still far from satisfactory, had somewhat improved. In Eastern Europe, the most critical zone, in which there were the largest concentration of Jewish life and the most appalling need, suffering had been relieved and lives saved.” 

Nevertheless, JDC Executive Vice Chairman Dr. Joseph Hyman painted a stark picture of the challenges that still lay ahead:  

“… A survey of nearly every country in Europe reveals that more than 50 per cent of the survivors depend on JDC aid. More people must be assisted—more of every commodity and of every service is needed everywhere. The immediate necessity is for food, clothing, medical aid, and housing. It is not enough merely to continue shipments of supplies overseas—they must be stepped up everywhere on a priority basis.” 

Inspecting supplies destined for Jews living in the DP camps at a JDC warehouse in Bremen, Germany, 1946.

Hyman went on to emphasize the Holocaust’s horrific toll on European Jewry’s youngest generation: “Jewish children have been reduced in numbers from a pre-war estimate of 1,200,000 to only 150,000 and nearly half of these are orphans, or half orphans, dependent on the Joint Distribution Committee for help, protective care, and understanding.” 

Assessing each country in turn, Hyman predicted that JDC’s relief rolls would soon double, citing the 150,000 destitute Jews repatriated to Poland from Soviet Russia, many of whom subsequently fled to the West; the 20,000 displaced Jews who’d recently entered Italy, adding to the needs of some 30,000 native Italian Jews; and the situation in France, “where JDC is caring for 36,000 including 11,000 children, but at least 60,000 need JDC aid.” 

JDC mobilized an army of professionals and thousands of tons of supplies to sustain half of all the Jews in Europe living west of the Soviet Union.

His estimates proved prescient, but then as now, JDC and its supporters were up to the task.  

Supplementing the relief provided by the US Army and UN agencies, JDC mobilized an army of professionals and thousands of tons of supplies to sustain the 700,000 people a month—half of all the Jews in Europe living west of the Soviet Union—who depended on JDC for aid in 1946 and 1947. 

In addition to material relief, which quickly came to include wedding rings and then layettes for newborns, JDC constructed a web of essential services. They included flying squads of doctors and nurses in the DP camps (which housed some 230,000 Jews by 1947); support for some 380 medical facilities continent-wide; rehabilitation, job training, and educational programs; religious and cultural materials and activities; a vast tracing service; and all-important emigration assistance, with JDC helping some 600,000 Jews to emigrate from Europe from 1946 on.  

One of the well-baby clinics set up and staffed by JDC medical personnel in the DP camps as survivors began to rebuild their lives, 1948.

Most important of all, perhaps, JDC brought hope—to war-devastated communities in Europe in 1945, and today, to Jewish communities beset by the wide-ranging effects of a frightening pandemic. As JDC’s incoming chairman, Edward M.M. Warburg, wrote in 1946: 

“I saw time and again how each representative of the ‘Joint’ had become a symbol of hope. The sense that someone cared was a thousand times more meaningful than the actual value of the supplies or the services that the J.D.C. was able to provide.”

That sense of caring—of responsibility for one another—is at the heart of our Jewish tradition. It is the defining element of JDC’s mission for, as Rashi, the most famous of Biblical commentators, taught us nearly a millennium ago, we are and always will be “One people, one heart” (Rashi, Exodus, 19:2). 

P.S. For an update on JDC’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, click here. To learn more about JDC activities before, during, and after World War II, visit archives.jdc.org and explore a treasure trove of documentary sources and audio/visual materials, including annotated galleries of images that bring JDC’s lifesaving work to life.

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