WJC, As the World Jewish Congress marks its 80th anniversary, President Ronald S. Lauder declared that vigilance and bold steps were as necessary today as they were in 1936 to defend Jews and Jewish community life, adding that the very existence of the WJC, the international Jewish umbrella organization, keeps the situation for Jews around the world from deteriorating to the level of pre-Holocaust Germany.
First WJC Plenary Assembly in Geneva in August 1936First WJC Plenary Assembly in Geneva in August 1936Ronald S. Lauder said: “In 1936, our founding fathers and mothers gathered in Switzerland to unite against the growing threat of Nazi Germany and to bring the Jewish plight to the world’s attention. Today, the world’s attitude toward Jews may still be hostile, but two things have certainly changed. Firstly, we have changed. The era of the quiet Jew, the timid Jew, the Ghetto Jew, is long over. Those leaders who set up the WJC 80 years ago buried that Jew – and he’s not coming back.
“Secondly, there is the State of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world. The World Jewish Congress works to defend Israel and its people in the international arena, and we hope to contribute to achieving peace and stability in the Middle East.
“The founding of the World Jewish Congress put Jewish interests on the map of international diplomacy for the first time. I am sure that the founding fathers and mothers of the WJC, who could not prevent the Holocaust but who did much to help Jews during and after World War II, would have been proud of what the WJC and what Israel have achieved in recent decades.
“Much needs to be done to fight anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, but as we look back over the last 80 years, it is clear that the world would be an even more dangerous place for Jews were in not for the establishment of the WJC as the representative voice and diplomatic arm of world Jewry.”
8-15 August 1936: Founding assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva
The World Jewish Congress was formally established in Geneva, Switzerland, by a plenary assembly of 230 elected representatives from Jewish communities in 32 countries to serve as an umbrella body tasked to defend Jewish rights vis-à-vis governments and international bodies and to mobilize for the establishment of a Jewish home in what was then the Mandate of Palestine.
Today, the WJC has affiliated member organizations in over 100 countries and territories and remains the only truly global Jewish umbrella organization.
8 August 1942: Riegner Telegram alerts world to Holocaust
During World War II, the WJC set up a relief body to assist persecuted Jews in Europe and it alerted the world to the Holocaust. On 8 August 1942, the WJC’s Geneva representative Gerhart Riegner sent the famous telegram in which he informed the United States for the first time about the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’, the plan to exterminate all Jews in the German-occupied territories. Riegner had received his information from the German industrialist Eduard Schulte.
Throughout the war, the WJC lobbied the Allied governments to grant entry visas to Jewish refugees. Despite the US State Department's opposition, the WJC obtained permission from the US Treasury Department, headed by Henry Morgenthau, to transmit funds to Europe for the rescue and assistance of persecuted Jews. According to a report by Riegner, these funds helped to bring 1,350 Jewish children from the occupied countries to Switzerland and 70 to Spain.
9 August 1944: WJC urges United States to bomb Auschwitz
On 9 August 1944, the head of the WJC’s Rescue Department, Arieh Leon Kubowitzki, sent a letter to the US Undersecretary of War John McCloy, relaying a message from Ernest Frischer of the Czechoslovak State Council urging the destruction of gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the bombing of railway communications in this area.
On 14 August 1944, McCloy replied to Kubowitzki by rejecting the idea, saying that “such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources.”
In April 1945, the WJC managed to obtain the liberation of 4,500 inmates from the women's concentration camp Ravensbrück through direct negotiations with top Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.
In the aftermath of World War II, the WJC undertook efforts to rebuild Jewish communities in Europe, provided assistance to displaced persons and Shoah survivors, pushed for the indemnification of victims by Germany, and advocated for the punishment of Nazi leaders who committed crimes against humanity.
In 1951, WJC President Nahum Goldmann established the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to handle Jewish reparation claims.
The World Jewish Congress also successfully lobbied the United Nations and governments to support the establishment of the State of Israel. After 1948, the WJC focused its attention on the plight of Jewish refugees in Arab countries and also drew international attention to the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union, who were ultimately granted permission to move to Israel or to remain in their communities.
During the 1980s, the World Jewish Congress exposed the Nazi past of former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who was elected president of Austria in 1986.
During the 1990s, the WJC successfully lobbied for the restitution of assets of Holocaust victims held in so-called ‘dormant’ bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere, and it ensured that they were returned to their rightful owners, or that adequate compensation was paid. Commissions were set up in 17 nations to investigate Holocaust-era assets, including looted art, and the funds recovered have been used to support a multitude of programs worldwide.
The WJC also fought for justice for forced laborers – both Jewish and non-Jewish – whose agonizing hardship had gone uncompensated for decades, resulting in the setting up of a US$ 5 billion fund by Germany in 2001.
The World Jewish Congress has also been at the forefront of fostering a better understanding with other religions, notably with the Catholic Church, and the organization facilitated the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See in 1993.