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Frankfurt Jewish GI Council

Part I

From the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944 until the early 1950s, the surviving remnant of European Jewry received aid from various sources. The American Army, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the International Relief Organization (IRO) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) provided the majority of the assistance to these displaced persons (DPs) during this period. Since there was an ongoing need for additional supplies, many American Jewish chaplains and soldiers stationed in the American zones of occupation in Germany and Austria offered their assistance. Most of the Jewish GIs who helped the survivors did so as individuals or in small groups. Their activities were rarely publicized. The major exception was the Frankfurt Jewish GI Council that was established in June 1946.

 

Early Beginnings

In April 1946, David Bar-El (Shachter) and Eliezer Dembitz arrived in Bad Nauheim, Germany. Both were U.S. citizens who lived with their families in Eretz Yisroel, and who had recently been inducted into the American Army. From April to June, they devoted most of their free time to helping the Jewish survivors in the Bad Nauheim area. Other Jewish military personnel assisted them as well.

It soon became clear that additional help was needed. They were already working with the Zeilsheim DP camp, the Jewish community of Bad Nauheim, and Kibbutz Hafetz Haim located near Bad Nauheim. Bar-El wanted to involve other Jewish GIs in the region under the auspices of an American Jewish chaplain.

In nearby Frankfurt, Germany Dembitz and Bar-El met Yosef Miller, the Jewish chaplain in Namur, Belgium. Miller, an Orthodox rabbi, was already very involved with Jewish DPs and wanted to mobilize Jewish soldiers once he was transferred to Frankfurt.

Sometime in June, the three called a meeting for Wednesday June 26, 1946, at the Frankfurt Jewish Welfare Board Center. At the first meeting, which attracted about 25 Jewish GIs, the group decided to help all the Jewish DPs within a “reasonable” radius of Frankfurt.

A “fair percentage” of the GI Council, at least during the first two years, were not American GIs. There were men and women from Denmark, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Most had gone to England before the war where they worked in censoring sensitive material, and were now involved with the U. S. Military Government.

During these weekly meetings, there were discussions on Zionism, current problems of the Yishuv, aliyah, the psychology of the DPs and the necessity for relief, led by Dembitz, Bar-El and Abraham Levinsohn, another American Jewish GI from Palestine. Their influence in the Council lasted until March 1947.

 

Visits to the Camps

Sundays were designated for visits to the Jewish DP camps within a 90-mile radius. At first the group numbered six to eight members, which soon increased to 10 to 40. At first, there was a command car, then a 21-ton truck. Finally, there were two or three trucks enabling a few groups to visit different camps.

Usually, the drive lasted an hour or two. The camps visited included: Zeilsheim, Bensheim, Wetzlar, Ziegenhain, Babenhausen, Schwarzenborn, Lindenfels, Dieburg, Lampertheim, and Kibbutz Buchenwald, These visits served a number of purposes: “to instill some hope for the future into persons deadened by the past”; demonstrate that American Jews cared for their welfare; and offer immediate assistance to those camps that desperately needed it.

Most of the provisions were obtained from individual packages sent to the GIs by their parents or relatives. Others came from the local army supply depot, which unofficially provided blankets, sheets and underwear. Sympathetic American soldiers manning the depot provided Rabbi Miller with whatever they could. Rabbi Miller also received toys, candy, toothpaste and other items from the Post Exchange by purchases made by GIs. Monies received from bingo games and a nylon-stocking raffle were also used to buy supplies.

While these supplies were important, much more was needed. In his Friday night sermons, Rabbi Miller encouraged the GIs to help in improving conditions for the DPs. From June 1946 to February 1947, Rabbi Miller played a crucial role in the GI Council.

 

The Forest Hills Connection

After one Friday night service, Johnny Low informed Rabbi Miller that he could obtain much of what was needed for the DPs. When his parents, who belonged to the Forest Hills Jewish Center in New York, received letters from their son, their home immediately became the center for canned foods, blankets, clothing, shoes and other supplies to be sent to Germany.

The rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, Ben Zion Bokser, exhorted his congregation to get involved, and enlisted the support of the local area churches. Mrs. Bokser and the group of women who packed the supplies for shipment had anywhere from one to 25 women working at one time. On a number of occasions returning members of the Council assisted them.

The package program probably began sometime in July or August of 1946 and ran for about a year. Hundreds of 22-pound packages were initially sent each week. Within a short time the project became so successful that Mrs. Rosamund Low approached the JDC to help with the shipping, and they agreed. The Lows estimated that close to 23 tons were shipped in this manner.

As these supplies were being distributed, Johnny Low and other Council members took pictures, which were sent to the donors along with a personal note. At one point, he described how newborn babies were being wrapped in newspapers and the horrid conditions under which they were being reared. In response, the group held a baby shower at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. Some were so moved, they gave money as well as baby gifts.

Before this steady stream began, the Council was quite limited in the amount and type of supplies that it could provide.


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and on the advisory board of the National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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