Celebrating Five Women Leaders Who Made JDC History

This Women's History Month, we're honoring five female leaders who embodied JDC's core commitment to saving Jewish lives.

By The JDC Team | March 28, 2024

Women have always been the backbone of the Jewish world. From caring for Holocaust survivors in post-World War II Europe to providing aid to Ukraine’s Jews today, it’s women who have helped power JDC’s life-saving work for 109 years. As we wrap up Women’s History Month, we profile five JDC heroines who lived their commitment to Jewish mutual responsibility — and passed this core value down to future generations. 

Irma May with Jewish children en route to summer camp, Warsaw, c. 1932-1935. Photograph: Foto-Forbert Studio. Courtesy of JDC Archives

Irma May
Social Worker & Social Activist

Disease, famine, and dislocation were common challenges for hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, during and after World War I. 

Into this chaos stepped Irma May — social worker and researcher. May arrived as part of JDC’s efforts to alleviate the hardships Jews faced across the region. These efforts were far-reaching: JDC established soup kitchens, reconstructed and equipped hospitals, supported orphanages, and sent teams of doctors and public health experts to hundreds of towns and villages in Poland.

In the early 1920s, Irma toured the “hunger belt” of Poland and Romania, surveying the desperate conditions Jewish communities endured throughout the region. She conducted extensive studies and wrote reports that made clear to JDC — and American Jews more fully — the plight of their Jewish brethren in Europe. 

“In the upbuilding of the readjustment of economic life of the Jews of Poland,” May wrote in a 1926 report on Poland, “lies the way out and the hope for a brighter future.” 

Through her indefatigable efforts, May paved the way for future female leaders.

Laura Margolis and Eleanor Roosevelt at a JDC-supported children’s home, Draveil, France, c. 1952. Photograph: Jerome Silberstein. Courtesy of JDC Archives

Laura Margolis
Social Worker, JDC Country Director, and Community Organizer

Heroine. Trailblazer. Jointnik.

These three words encapsulate Laura Margolis — the JDC professional who became a guardian angel to Jews around the world. A trained social worker, Margolis got her start for JDC in Cuba, assisting thousands of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany. 

Impressed with her work, JDC sent her to Shanghai in 1941, where she built an emergency-relief operation that sustained more than 20,000 European Jews who found refuge there during the war. During World War II and after, she also organized a secret parcel service for Jews in the concentration camps, created social services for Holocaust survivors, and set up housing for children and the elderly in Belgium.

Margolis was promoted to JDC Country Director for France, a first for a woman in the organization’s history. And in 1947, by national order of the King of Belgium, Margolis was decorated with the Belgian government’s Order of the Crown for her work. This award was given only to Allied military personnel who helped liberate Belgium from the Nazis.

“If I’d been a man, I would have joined the navy and seen the world. But since I was a woman, I joined JDC,” Margolis once said, reflecting the intrepid spirit that powered her life-saving work around the world. 

Thanks to Margolis’s noble and steadfast efforts, tens of thousands of Jewish lives were saved and new generations of Jews thrive today.

At the Amsterdam airport, Esther Haskin says goodbye to a refugee leaving for the United States. Courtesy of JDC Archives

Esther Haskin
Caseworker & Program Director

For Esther Haskin, a 12-hour workday was par for the course. 

“I go to the office now at 8:30 in the morning and I am able to leave by 7 in the evening,” Esther Haskin wrote in a 1946 memo to the JDC New York office. “I feel as if I am doing just half a day’s work. For the first time, I have some leisure.”

Haskin wrote this memo from Amsterdam, where JDC had sent her to help Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This was no easy task: The Dutch Jewish community was decimated, left with only a quarter of its pre-war size, but Haskin — a Tulane graduate armed with a degree in social work — was up to the task. 

First employed as a JDC caseworker in January 1946, Haskin was promoted to running the entire JDC Holland program only three months later. Her workload included working with refugees and displaced persons, as well as reuniting children, parents, and family members. 

During her tenure, she expanded JDC’s reach, cultivating strong relationships with the Jewish community in Holland, the U.S. army, governmental offices, and UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).

Haskin’s outstanding legacy is evident in the rebuilding of Dutch Jewish life — and Jewish communities across the continent. 

Hélène Cazès-Bénatar visits an orphan in a children’s home established by JDC, Casablanca, Morocco, c. 1949-1950. Photograph: Al Taylor. Courtesy of JDC Archives

Hélène Cazès-Bénatar
Lawyer & Refugee Advocate
(1898- 1979)

In June 1940, Morocco’s Jews found themselves in dire straits. 

That month, an armistice split France between Nazi and Allied powers, and French Morocco came under Vichy rule. Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi advance found refuge in Casablanca, where they flooded the American Consulate and sought visas to emigrate to the United States. 

Their prospects for emigration were slim — and their situation grew more desperate by the day. In the fall of 1940, Vichy officials opened an internment camp at nearby Sidi-el-Ayachi to detain Jewish refugees who had outstayed their welcome in Casablanca. Faced with Nazi persecution, these Jews had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

Except for Hélène Cazès-Bénatar.

A lawyer by training, Cazès-Bénatar established the Committee for Assistance of Foreign Refugees (Comité d’Assistance aux Réfugiés Étrangers) to provide relief for the Jewish refugees. She also worked to have them released from Sidi-el-Ayachi as well as other internment camps throughout Morocco. 

Through a partnership she fostered with JDC, Cazès-Bénatar was able to secure the necessary resources to help Jewish refugees. With her help – and JDC’s support — refugees freed from the camps were able to find jobs and housing. 

When World War II ended, Cazès-Bénatar’s life-saving work continued. She went on to serve as JDC’s delegate for North Africa, leveraging her boundless energy to help the region’s Jews. 

Lydia Eskenazi with her son, Menachem, who also worked for JDC in Greece, 1991. Photograph: Yale Strom. Courtesy of JDC Archives

Lydia Eskenazi
Polyglot & Immigration Affairs Expert 

Imagine you’re walking down a gangplank. It’s 1957, and your ship has just docked in the bustling port of Piraeus, Greece. You’ve left everything behind in Egypt — your home — and you’re now seeking safety in Greece. You step onto shore and a woman introduces herself.

It’s Lydia Eskenazi — an employee of JDC in Greece. You’re in good hands.

When it opened in 1945, the JDC office in Greece counted Lydia Eskenazi as its first employee. A native of Greece, and a polyglot who spoke seven languages, Eskenazi was crucial for JDC’s mission across the country and the region. Eskenazi was an expert on immigration matters, and helped more than 700 Greek Jews emigrate to the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. 

In 1957, Greece was the first stop for Jews fleeing persecution in Egypt — a landing point where JDC cared for them before many of them emigrated to Israel. Whenever Eskenazi heard that a ship from Alexandria was docking in Piraeus, she rushed down to the port, welcoming these Jews ashore and connecting them to much-needed support . 

Eskenazi went on to become JDC’s director of public relations in Greece. Later, when the Greek Jewish community became more self-sufficient, she served as JDC’s emigration officer in Athens, helping countless Jews restart their lives. 

With a JDC career spanning half a century, Eskenazi is remembered as a champion of the Greek Jewish community.

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