Federation and WWII: 1938-1948

By Barbara Sheklin Davis

05-III - 1942 mailing for Chapter IIIThe Jewish Federation of Central New York is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2018

Editor’s note: To mark this milestone, we are printing a series of 10 articles highlighting each decade of the Federation’s work with and for the community. We hope you enjoy this look backward as we continue to work to ensure a thriving future.

In 1941, the Jewish community was still unaware of the magnitude of the Holocaust, the systematic German extermination of the Jews of Europe. In 1942 the Jewish Welfare Federation launched “one of the most important campaigns in the history of Syracuse.” The campaign stressed that “five million Jews living in Nazi-conquered nations are without food, clothing, shelter and medical care. It declared “The Jews of America are still free to live and free to give” and that their financial support was desperately needed.

“Their fate is in your hands,” said a poster in 1942 advertising the Jewish Welfare Fund of Syracuse’s War Emergency Campaign. “Alone, bereft, starving, helpless, the victims of a bitter fanatical hate, these refugees can hope for little. Their fate, if left in Nazi hands…slow starvation, disease, death.” And yet, it told the community, “there is still a way out. Your help with contributions for the Jewish Welfare Fund will be efficiently administered to bring new life to many thousands of these suffering people. Tens of thousands of Jews can be rescued in 1942 through emigration…hundreds of thousands can be fed and sheltered without enriching our Nazi enemies by one penny.”

As further details of the horrors of the Shoah began to emerge, the Federation stepped up its efforts to help those who survived. At the 1946 Federation Annual Meeting, an oil painting by Syracuse artist David Perlmutter was displayed. Entitled “A Survivor’s Nightmare of the Warsaw Ghetto,” it portrayed a group of Jews huddled near the shattered remnants of a synagogue, looking piteously at a row of eerie Wehrmacht skulls. The painting was to become part of the national campaign to raise funds for survivors, refugees and displaced persons. The artist told Federation supporters that these figures represented “survivors of the most diabolical and calculated inhuman assault on civilization” and that he meant the painting “to live as a reminder of what despotism, bigotry and totalitarianism stands for.”

At another meeting, Federation solicitors were told that “Americans alone have the resources with which to do this work of mercy and necessity.” The year 1946, it was emphasized, was for the majority of the surviving European Jews “the year of decision…. the year in which you will decide whether they shall live or die.” For the starving Jews of Europe, it was stressed, “America is more than a symbol of democracy — it is their last and only hope of life.” The speaker added, “Moreover, there is a special charge upon our consciences to rescue the Jews on whom Hitler ‘whet the knife with which he intended later to cut the throats of all of us.’”

Unable to do anything for those who had perished, federations across the country redoubled their efforts to aid survivors. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, unable or unwilling to return to their former homes in Europe, sought instead to go to Palestine or the United States. In Syracuse, the Federation galvanized the community through well-organized fund-raising campaigns that supported refugee resettlement and support for Israel. “Don’t let the light go out,” proclaimed a 1947 campaign poster. “There are thousands of children who have survived Hitler’s plans for their extermination. Sad, hungry, terrified children who need your help. Can you refuse them?” Syracuse Rabbi Irwin Hyman, who served as chaplain and advisor on Jewish affairs to the European theater, returned to Syracuse to tell people about the situation in Europe. “Europe today is fraught with fears—fear of famine, fear of disunity and fear of another war,” he said, adding that “the people in Europe feel that the war had failed to settle many things, and they harbor suspicions that another conflict is imminent.” The need to rescue the Jews who survived Hitler was desperate.

At a 1948 Federation rally in Syracuse, a UJA speaker told the audience that “the survivors of the Holocaust have been ready for months to go to Palestine. They have been attending schools set up in the camp, have been learning trades and have prepared in every way possible so that they will be productive citizens of Palestine. These are the people who, a year ago today, were fed like infants with spoons – such was their physical condition.”

In the years following the war, American Jews became the most important Jewish community in the world. Federation stood in the forefront of helping Holocaust survivors, aiding the nascent State of Israel, and sustaining a meaningful Jewish way of life in America.

This flyer was sent by the Jewish Welfare Fund (not the Jewish Federation of Central New York) to members of the Syracuse Jewish community on April 26, 1942. It exhorted community members to increase the War Emergency Campaign, which served 30 organizations, and whose goal was $90,000 that year, to help Jewish war victims survive.