- The World Jewish Congress during the Holocaust: Between Activism and Restraint by Zohar Segev
Zohar Segev’s new work attempts to demonstrate that the World Jewish Congress does not receive the credit it deserves for its actions on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust. While it is true that many of the accomplishments of the WJC [End Page 148] have been ignored in the literature, however, Segev’s passion does not translate into a sound scholarly case, and he often goes off topic attempting to prove his assertions.
One of Segev’s main arguments, and perhaps one of his more controversial, is that the WJC functioned more as an American than an international Jewish organization. He suggests this largely because the WJC was headquartered in the U.S. Though many decisions originated in New York, however, especially after the outbreak of World War II, Segev does not prove that the WJC was an “American” institution. While Stephen S. Wise and Nahum Goldmann were important figures in the Congress, they were not the only key players; yet Segev devotes disproportionate efforts tracing the actions of these two men rather than examining the organization as a whole, apparently reflecting his conviction that “American Jewish leaders were imbued with a deep sense of mission and responsibility for the fate of world Jewry … while striving to mold the Jewish world according to their view as American Jews.” Though he insists that the WJC “was virtually identical to the American Jewish Congress,” and emphasizes that Stephen Wise was president of the American Jewish Congress (AJC) and an executive of the WJC, research into the activities of both agencies before, during, and after the Holocaust does not always show complementary programs. While both worked to secure the rescue and relief of European Jews during the 1930s and 1940s, the AJC had to function within an American context that included widespread antisemitism; a U.S. president initially more concerned with domestic rather than international issues, and subsequently more focused on an Allied victory rather than action on behalf of Europe’s Jews; and the need to promote its agenda with other American Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee.
Even though the headquarters of the WJC was in the United States, it had functioning branches in many European countries throughout the war. Hardly subservient to the New York office, these divisions provided the information that helped dictate plans of rescue and relief. Perhaps the best example is the Riegner Telegram, which provided sound information about the mass murder of European Jews and came to Wise’s attention via the Geneva WJC office. Though the AJC was working to help refugees, without the information it received from the European branches of the WJC, it would not have had the kind of documentation of Germany’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” that it needed to fight for support by the American people and government. The WJC had needs and programs different from those of American Jewish organizations, and Segev is unable convincingly to support his argument that the WJC functioned as an American Jewish relief organization.
The strongest contribution of the book is Segev’s discussion of 1940s rescue activities that the WJC coordinated, including a number of case studies not commonly known. Noting that prior to the Second World War the WJC had sought to gain public support by publicizing its activities, Segev correctly observes that “this approach was clearly inappropriate for clandestine activity in Europe” and led to the problem that “the Congress had no prior organizational infrastructure of an underground nature, [End Page 149] compounding the challenge that faced its leaders.” While Segev admits that this problem restricted WJC successes to “only” a few thousand children saved, he sheds light on the variety of rescue methods employed in Portugal, Denmark, and Bulgaria. In particular, he documents the many initiatives by which rank-and-file members saved thousands more lives. As Segev observes, “secrecy created the impression that the WJC had done nothing...