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Three "Rich Uncles in America": The Australian Immigration Project and American Jewry

From: American Jewish History
Volume 95, Number 1, March 2009
pp. 79-115 | 10.1353/ajh.0.0118

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Three "Rich Uncles in America":
The Australian Immigration Project and American Jewry

In 1945, after the Holocaust, the majority of surviving European Jews wished to leave the continent and start a new life far from the scene that had become for them a mass graveyard. Most wished to emigrate either to Palestine or to the United States, but for some, distant Australia seemed a hopeful refuge. In the period between 1945 and 1961 approximately 25,000 Jewish displaced persons (DPs) established a new life at "the edge of the diaspora," continuing a trend that had begun in the late 1930s when the first refugees fleeing Nazism arrived in Australia.1 In 1933, there were only 23,000 Jews in Australia, according to official census figures. Between 1938 and 1961, the community almost tripled in size to 61,000 and by 2008 had grown to 105,000.2 The Holocaust survivors of this period who found refuge in Australia completely changed the nature of the Jewish community. However, the Australian government ensured that the number of Jews did not exceed 0.5 per cent of the overall population because of antirefugee hysteria.3 As a result of this sentiment against Jewish immigrants, the Australian government, both Labor and Liberal, insisted that the reception and integration of the refugees was the responsibility of the Jewish community. No government funds were expended on Jews because of the fear of a political backlash. Sponsors of the refugees were responsible for accommodating the newcomers and helping those in need find their feet in a new land. The Australian Jewish Welfare Societies (AJWS) in Sydney and the Australian Jewish [End Page 79] Welfare and Relief Society (AJW&RS) in Melbourne directly sponsored some of the refugees and acted as a backup service for those sponsored privately but requiring assistance. Boats were met, immigrants were helped with finding employment or setting up in business through interest free loans and two different schemes were established to assist orphan survivors of the Holocaust who wished to immigrate to Australia. This was too immense an undertaking for Australian Jews to finance alone, so they appealed to overseas Jewish communities, particularly in the United States, for assistance. The absorption of Jewish immigrants into Australia in the postwar era became a joint enterprise between the local and overseas Jewish communities in what became known as "The Australian Immigration Project."

Three American Jewish welfare organizations in particular facilitated this project: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Refugee Economic Corporation (REC), and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). The active involvement of these organizations—referred to by one observer as the "three rich uncles"—is a good illustration of how the Jewish community in the United States emerged as the leader of world Jewry after 1945 and was the driving force in the relocation of Europe's surviving Jewish remnant to both Palestine/Israel and throughout the English-speaking world.4

The JDC was founded in 1914 in the United States to facilitate the transfer of funds raised to assist Jews across Europe and in Palestine who were suffering from hunger, poverty, and dislocation as a result of World War I. The organization's leaders were members of the most prominent families of the American Jewish establishment. The founding chairman, Felix M. Warburg, was a member of the investment firm of Kuhn, Loeb, and Company, and the son-in-law of the firm's senior partner, philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff. Warburg headed the JDC from 1914 until 1932 (his son, Edward M. M. Warburg, served as chairman from 1941 to 1966). After World War I, the JDC continued to provide massive financial support for basic needs of Jews affected by the conflict, as well as for the reconstruction efforts of Jewish communities. Later, after reconstruction needs diminished, it extended its brief to help Jews overseas who were struggling under the economic turmoil that eventually spiralled into the world financial crisis of the late 1920s and 1930s. Through these various stages of development, the organization became "a way of life to those active in it," wrote JDC historian Oscar Handlin. [End Page 80] "Its structure...