Bringing Jewish History to Life: The World Jewish Congress

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In 1942, the World Jewish Congress alerted the free world of the Holocaust and pressured U.S. and British leaders to take action. | Wikimedia Commons

By Menachem Z. Rosensaft

My late teacher and mentor Elie Wiesel once explained that, “In my tradition we have the expression ‘to be like a bow.’ You pull the arrow and you are tense, but you don’t let the arrow go, ever. The tension must be there; you don’t release it. Well, this is what … a book should be.”

This was my goal for The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, the newly published history of the preeminent international Jewish human rights organization that I was privileged to compile and edit. The book had to reflect the different tensions and the diversity of voices that have characterized the World Jewish Congress (WJC) ever since its founding in August 1936 in the shadow of ever increasing persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

The WJC has been intrinsically involved in most of the dramatic events that have defined Jewish history over the course of the past 80 years, from the darkest hours of the Shoah to the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. It was the WJC that first alerted the free world that Nazi Germany was implementing a plan to annihilate European Jewry, and it was the WJC’s Swedish Section that devised and financed Raul Wallenberg’s mission to provide life-saving visas to the Jews of Budapest.

After the end of World War II, the WJC became the principal political advocate on behalf of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust forced to live in displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the organization engaged in its high-level diplomatic negotiations that enabled Jews from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to emigrate to Israel, France and elsewhere.

In more recent years, the WJC has been a key force in the efforts to persuade European governments to provide restitution for property looted from Jews during the Holocaust. The WJC has also been a stalwart ally of the State of Israel in the international arena, and is today at the forefront of the fight against any delegitimization of the Jewish state.

About two years ago, when WJC President Ronald S. Lauder and CEO Robert Singer first told me that they wanted to publish a comprehensive account of the WJC’s first eight decades, we opted not to have a single historian write an academic, chronological study based primarily on archival research.

Instead, wherever possible, we invited individuals who had personally participated in the WJC’s activities and accomplishments to write first-person accounts for the book. In addition, we asked scholars with particular expertise to contribute chapters about notable episodes of the WJC’s history.

Thus, Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli, vice prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, recalls the pioneering role of the WJC’s Gerhart M. Riegner in crafting a new Catholic-Jewish relationship. Gregg J. Rickman, who led the U.S. Senate Banking Committee’s examination of Swiss banks and their treatment of Holocaust-era assets during and after World War II, describes how the WJC and its then-President Edgar M. Bronfman spearheaded the campaign to force Swiss banks to disgorge more than $1 billion they had wrongfully withheld from Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs.

Eli Rosenbaum, the longtime head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, who oversaw the WJC’s exposure of the Nazi past of a former U.N. secretary general and Austrian presidential candidate, gives a fascinating insider’s account of the notorious Waldheim Affair.

Natan Lerner, the director of the WJC’s Israel Branch from 1966 until 1984, writes about the WJC’s relationship and interactions with the State of Israel. Evelyn Sommer, chairperson of the WJC’s North American Section, depicts the instrumental part played by the WJC in fighting against and ultimately rescinding the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism. Maram Stern, the WJC’s deputy CEO for diplomacy, reminisces about the complexities of attempting to maintain relations with Jewish communities in communist countries during the Cold War years.

WJC CEO Robert Singer describes the organization’s broad array of present-day diplomatic initiatives, programs and activities, including its intensified efforts to support and protect Jewish communities across the globe threatened by resurgent anti-Semitism and terrorism.

It is our hope that the WJC’s past accomplishments will continue to be a foundation for its future.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities.

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