“Grandpa’s Safe Haven”

Three Generations Touched by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).


More than 90 years after the founding of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the philanthropic organization still has a tremendous impact on the lives of the needy and those who were helped by the organization in the past.

Here are three generations and their stories—a sampling of scores that were touched by the JDC, which is part of the United Jewish Federations: There is the Hungarian Holocaust survivor, his son and grandson; and there is the son of Russian émigrés, who found refuge in the US, and his daughter. The JDC helped both families—almost 60 years ago in Europe and 30 years later here, in the United States. And to this day, they remember. More than 90 years since its founding, the nonpartisan JDC is still active in more than 60 countries, helping the elderly, the children, the poor, the displaced and all people in need, Jews and non-Jews alike. This spring, the JDC received the highly coveted Israel Prize 2007 for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel, the country’s highest civilian honor.


A Holocaust Survivor’s Family from Hungary


Children at JDC’s Rothschild Hospital in Austria

One of its protégés was Daniel Szabo. He escaped from Budapest in 1949 at the age of 16. After being smuggled out of Hungary, he ended up in Rothschild Hospital in the American zone in Vienna, which had been turned into a JDC-run refugee camp for 600 displaced persons. It was an interesting time for Daniel: He remembers being adventurous and coming face to face for the first time with the aftermath of the Holocaust and its effect on the victims. It was a time of confusion for him. He had a job wrapping boxes in Vienna and another making fake antique silver jewelry.

Later, his family received a stipend from the JDC to fly to the United States via Paris and settled near Washington, D.C.. Until his death, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Nevertheless, he always remembered the JDC camp fondly: It was a place that gave him a haven.

“I remember this one story being told while I was growing up: my father’s escape,” says his son, Peter. But Peter’s memories of the JDC camp are not associated with the pain of that time. “There was a positive connotation attached to the JDC, because I heard the story of the escape told again and again, and the escape ended in safety with the JDC. But I was surprised to learn that this organization with its great mission still exists. It was our common touchstone, our shared contact with the Holocaust. But when all survivors were safely here, we grew up comfortably and stopped thinking about it; we lost the immediate connection to this way of life, where people start over—like my father, who came here penniless.” Peter would like to see the JDC become an integral part of his local Jewish community life. “Synagogues and community centers now have become focal points for social action, like Darfur and other causes; one can imagine an association with the JDC because local communities need a partnership and alliances with an organization that has such expertise in channeling relief efforts.”


A Jewish Family from Russia Coming to Texas


JDCTerry Mikhelzon also remembers the JDC from his childhood: His family fled the Soviet Union in 1975 and settled in Houston, Texas, with generous grants and loans from the JDC that helped them get back on their feet. “After that, however, we never had any contact with the organization,” says Terry, which he regrets. “I wish we could have stayed in touch. The JDC enabled us to make a home in the U.S., and I wish it had followed up with us to see how far we’ve come!”

“There’s no good way to introduce our children to the past other than telling our own family story,” says Peter. “Each generation is like an echo, however; the stories of the past will bounce off and become fainter.” For the kids, the JDC needs to be an anchor and integral part of their Jewish education, in their summer camps or Sunday schools, where they apply what they’ve learned from the past to future needs.

Terry’s daughter will remember how the JDC helped her family. And so will Peter’s son and his daughter. They have already asked about their grandpa’s escape and survival. And in time, they will realize that the very same organization that aided generations is still hard at work and needs their help—because there are people everywhere who suffer.

As the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said: “I can still feel the warmth of the blanket I received from the Joint.”


More on the topic:

Joint Distribution Committee Archives

Searching for German-Jews in New York


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