WJC 85th Anniversary - World Jewish Congress
A Message from WJC President Ronald S. Lauder

Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder


Menachem Z. Rosensaft

The Jewish Right to Equality

Judge Julian W. Mack

The World Jewish Congress during World War II

Gregory J. Wallance

The Re-enfranchisement of the Jew

Rabbi Stephen S.Wise

Nuremberg and Beyond: Jacob Robinson, a Champion for Justice

Jonathan A. Bush

The State of World Jewry, 1948

Nahum Goldmann

Gerhart M. Riegner: Pioneer for Jewish–Catholic Relations in the Contemporary World

Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli

The World Jewish Congress and the State of Israel: A Personal Reminiscence

Natan Lerner

The World Jewish Congress, the League of Nations, and the United Nations

Zohar Segev

From Pariah to Partner: The Jews of Postwar Germany and the World Jewish Congress

Michael Brenner

Diplomatic Interventions: The World Jewish Congress and North African Jewry

Isabella Nespoli, Menachem Z. Rosensaft

Bourguiba’s Jewish Friend

S. J. Goldsmith

Soviet Jewry: Debates and Controversies

Suzanne D. Rutland

Advancing the Best in Jewish Culture

Philip M. Klutznick

The Struggle for Historical Integrity at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Laurence Weinbaum

New Directions and Priorities, 1985

Edgar M. Bronfman

Fighting Delegitimization: The United Nation’s “Zionism Is Racism” Resolution, a Case Study

Evelyn Sommer

Navigating the Communist Years: A Jewish Perspective

Maram Stern

The Kurt Waldheim Affair

Eli M. Rosenbaum

In Search of Justice: The World Jewish Congress and the Swiss Banks

Gregg J. Rickman

Confronting Terror: The Buenos Aires Bombings

Adela Cojab-Moadeb

The World Jewish Congress Today

Robert R. Singer

My Vision of the Jewish Future

Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder


Robert R. Singer

WJC 1936 - 2021

Navigating the Communist Years: A Jewish Perspective

I was born in Berlin in 1955, ten years after the end of the Second World War, to parents who had fled Eastern Europe, having survived the Shoah, and who had decided to settle in Berlin. In 1961, we awoke to find a wall, built during the night by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) authorities, called the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall: the anti-fascist protective wall. It had supposedly been constructed to protect the Germans in the Eastern sector from a potential return of fascism; in reality, the wall was intended to prevent escapes from the GDR to the West.

Already as a child, I understood that this barrier would affect my life, as it would the lives of all Berliners. However, I could never have imagined that the Berlin Wall, which dissected my city, would become the symbol of division for almost three decades— cutting Europe in two, splitting the world into two ideological blocs, and separating European Jewish communities. We had to wait until 1989 to see this wall tumble down like a house of cards. At the time, I had just joined the World Jewish Congress, an organization that had always been dedicated to overcoming barriers. 

In this chapter I focus on the social and diplomatic engagements of the WJC, and how the organization experienced history, in the years following the Second World War and then during the Cold War years, with respect to Communist countries other than the Soviet Union (USSR). I do not touch here on the question of the WJC’s role in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which is a separate issue and is addressed in a separate chapter of this book.

1936 to 1948

If we look back on history from the perspective of the WJC, the Communist years, just like the Nazi years before them, never prevented the organization from fighting for imperilled or persecuted Jewish communities. Isaac I. Schwarzbart, in charge of the Organization Department of the WJC, noted succinctly in 1957 that: “[t]he WJC struggled, with considerable success, to achieve constructive unity of the Jewish people.”

In 1936 in Geneva, during the inaugural plenary assembly of the WJC, representatives of virtually all European Jewish communities were in attendance to discuss the problems for which they all needed to take a common stand. It is worth noting that two absent communities were those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On this occasion, the situation of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe was presented by sociologist Jacob Lestschinsky, who was living in Warsaw at the time, where he had arrived in 1934 from Berlin. He gave a detailed report in Yiddish, the common language of all the communities in Eastern Europe. For us today, his exposé on Jewish life represents much more than an account. It is a warning alarm from a world under threat and a detailed snapshot of the social condition of these communities before the Shoah swept them away. I think it is important for everyone to be aware of this broad and comprehensive panorama of the communities that Lestschinsky outlined in 1936 to understand the complete disarray in which the communities found themselves after the implementation and extension of genocide.

Following the Shoah, the communities of Central and Eastern Europe had to overcome additional ordeals. They had to fight for many years until the rights of the victims and the survivors were finally recognized and, to a greater or lesser extent, addressed. Geopolitical transformations, added to the years of migrations, the acts of expropriation, the redrawing of borders, and the forced displacement of millions of people after the genocide, imposed new political models. All of these changes caused fundamental upheaval for the Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe. In 1946, many became victims of anti-Semitic pogroms, such as at Kielce in Poland, where the WJC sent a delegation to demand an explanation of the situation and to explore the possibility of Jewish emigration. On this occasion, the WJC obtained the right for Polish Jews to emigrate, and many of them left for Sweden, where the Stockholm office of the WJC had arranged for work permits to be issued.

Between 1947 and 1948, WJC delegations had the opportunity to travel to Central European countries. Community representatives in these countries were able to participate unhindered in continental and global meetings of the WJC. In April 1947, a year before the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, a meeting of the WJC European Consultative Council was held in Prague.

The declaration of the State of Israel in May of 1948 was, of course, the watershed moment in Jewish post-Holocaust history. It also provided the hope that Jews would be allowed to leave Eastern Europe. At the second WJC plenary in Montreux, Switzerland, on June 27, 1948, in his last major speech as WJC President, Rabbi Wise proclaimed: “The State of Israel is established and it will stand. Politically it has been recognized by two mighty nations, the United States of America and the Soviet Union.” Still, while delegates from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia participated in the Montreux plenary assembly, Nahum Goldmann, then chairman of the WJC Executive, said in his key- note address at that gathering:

We deeply regret that one great Jewish community— that of Soviet Russia— is not represented here today. We have done our best to have them with us; and—optimists as we are—we do not give up hope that very soon they will be able to come into this framework of world Jewry which we call the World Jewish Congress, taking their rightful place and making their contribution as one of the essential parts of a united Jewish people.

Unfortunately, this hope did not materialize. By 1951, all Jewish communities from Communist countries other than Yugoslavia had left the WJC. Nevertheless, the WJC policy of trying to maintain equilibrium between East and West remained. Thus, at the third WJC plenary assembly in Geneva in August 1953, the delegates adopted the following resolution on the Status and Rights of Jewish Communities in Eastern Europe:

The Third Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress feels it its inescapable duty to draw attention to the unsatisfactory conditions which make it increasingly difficult for Jewish communities to maintain a distinctive Jewish tradition and life in the Soviet Union and the other States of Eastern Europe The Congress records its most earnest hope that the opportunity will be accorded to Soviet Jewry to organize itself, to revive and maintain the great traditions of Russian Jewry, and to establish appropriate institutions through which it could co-operate with the rest of the Jewish people The Plenary Assembly is encouraged to hope that developments and changes in the structure of international relations may result everywhere in such lessening of tensions as will permit and encourage the organization or strengthening of Jewish community life in all these countries, so that they may take or resume their appropriate place in the councils of world Jewry and within the framework of the World Jewish Congress.

1949 to 1954

In Europe, Jews started to reclaim their lives in different ways depending on whether they were in the West or in the East: Western Europe embodied the spirit of reconstruction with the Marshall Plan. At the heart of NATO, military alliances were first established, followed by political alliances, as old enemies became allies. Eastern European countries and the new Communist regimes began to suffocate under the weight of propaganda: they were busy constructing a new mindset, in which the responsibility for the fascist past was put squarely on the shoulders of the West, and most if not all contact with the West was forbidden.

Despite all these political problems, whenever possible the WJC was at the side of Jewish communities, tirelessly active as the only Jewish forum in which communities could discuss, in complete freedom, both the problems that affected them and the challenges that lay on the horizon.

Construction of the Berlin Wall

The construction of the Berlin Wall demonstrated that Europe and the world were divided in two. To cross “the Wall” was the universal symbol of freedom and not only for Berliners.

The restrictions on Jewish life in the USSR and in most Communist countries reached extremely alarming levels, but the efforts by the WJC to allow “Jewish life in freedom” were performed with tenacity, obstinacy, and sometimes through mediation. They were often the subject of strong criticism, notably because they required establishing and maintaining good working relations with Communist governments. One by-product of this approach was the re-establishment of formal contacts with the Jewish community of Romania. In 1966, Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen of Romania attended the fifth WJC plenary assembly in Brussels as an observer. The WJC leadership believed that through a combination of diplomacy and political wisdom it could bring about a reintegration of this community into world Jewry. That is why the WJC supported Chief Rabbi Rosen throughout his term as head of the Jewish community of Romania and as chief rabbi of the country. Rosen undeniably had a strong relationship with his government, which sent him frequently as its unofficial envoy to the United States in a successful effort to obtain and then retain Most Favoured Nation status for his country.

In general, neither the Berlin Wall nor the Iron Curtain made WJC leaders forget the communities in the Communist countries; they always thought that it must be possible to breach the barriers in one way or another and to reunite with the communities on the other side—they just needed to seize the right opportunity at the right time. This opportunity came at the end of the 1960s.

In October 1966 Armand Kaplan, based in Paris and the deputy director of the International Affairs Department of the WJC, was invited to Sarajevo. The trip was organized by the Yugoslavian Federation of Jewish Communities, officially to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Jewish community in Sarajevo. In celebrating this event, Kaplan had various opportunities: an official visit to a socialist country; a visit to the local Jewish community; initial contact with representatives of other Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, who themselves could travel freely to Yugoslavia; and to lay the foundations for a potential visit by WJC President Nahum Goldmann to countries of the Soviet bloc. Kaplan’s visit was so successful that in December of the same year, a delegation from the Czechoslovakian Jewish community was able to meet with Goldmann and other representatives of the WJC in Geneva.

In January 1967, Kaplan was sent to visit Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. The purpose of his trip was to finalize the first visit of a WJC president behind the Iron Curtain since the start of the Cold War. Kaplan visited the communities and organized with them a series of official meetings, which took place from March to April 1967. It was a historical visit, which took the WJC delegation, headed by Goldmann, to Belgrade, Budapest, Bucharest, and Prague. In addition to Kaplan, Goldmann was accompanied by Gerhart M. Riegner, who was secretary-general of the WJC at the time, Stephen J. Roth, executive director of the European branch of the WJC, and Yitzhak Korn of the Israeli Executive of the WJC. The trip was simultaneously a voyage of hope and sadness: the hope of improving relations with the Jewish communities and the governments of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia through negotiation, and sadness because, for the first time, global Jewry could, through the WJC, officially pay homage to the victims of Nazism in these countries. The WJC delegation met with the leaders of these communities, and visited the places of remembrance of the genocide and other atrocities: the former Pinkas synagogue in Prague, the site of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezin), the remains of the destroyed village of Lidice, the monument in Budapest to the victims of forced labor camps, and the monument to the victims of Nazism in Romania.

On his return on April 17, 1967, Goldmann held a press conference in Geneva where he declared: “The identification with the Jewish people and their collaboration with the World Jewish Congress, as the expression of the unity of the Jewish people, is understood and appreciated by their governments.” This declaration by Goldmann enabled the communities in Hungary and Czechoslovakia to resume contact with the WJC and for the WJC to visit them. Unfortunately, this improved atmosphere did not last long. The Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in June 1967 changed the game once again. With the exception of Romania, the other countries of the Soviet bloc decided to sever diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

A new period of difficulty began for the Jewish communities. In Poland, in particular, anti-Semitic acts were carried out against the community under the guise of anti-Israeli propaganda. On several occasions, the WJC condemned the situation in Poland on the world stage, and firmly protested to the Polish authorities. In 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops persuaded a portion of the remaining Czech Jewish community to emigrate because the general situation of political repression in the country had become intolerable. At the end of the 1960s, the WJC led a worldwide campaign aimed at the leaders of East Germany (GDR) to extend the statute of limitations for the crimes committed by the Nazis. Besides these examples, we should not forget that, undeniably, throughout the 1960s the destiny of the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe was linked to that of Soviet Jews, which had become much more sensationalized in the media, as a consequence of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The 1970s

As already indicated above, numerous organizations, personalities, and communities of the western Jewish world were engaged in campaigns to support the cause of Jews in Russia. The 1970s were the years of struggle for obtaining the right of Jews from the USSR to emigrate. The WJC was at the heart of this fight.

While the WJC, along with other Jewish organizations, was fighting for the recognition of the rights of Russian Jews, it did not neglect the communities of Central and Eastern Europe, and its relations fluctuated according to the course of political events. The Romanian and Yugoslav communities remained active within the WJC, thanks to the “flexibility” of their regimes, and other communities were allowed to send observers to the conferences and meetings of the WJC. In my view, the personal relationship that existed between Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito and Nahum Goldmann played a critical role. At the time Tito wanted to be the leader of the so-called non-aligned movement, which pitted him against Indira Gandhi of India and Fidel Castro of Cuba. It was for that reason that he sought to open his own diplomatic channels with the West. Goldmann was a person of ambition and vision, both personally and for the WJC. He met Tito several times in the 1960s, and the two leaders discussed plans for a solution to the conflict in the Middle East, as well as the situation of Eastern European Jewish communities and Jewish communities in Muslim countries.

In 1975, the countries of the Soviet bloc were among those countries that signed the Helsinki Accords. This enabled the WJC to demand at every opportunity that the principle of free movement should be granted not only to the Jews in the USSR, but to all Jews living in Communist countries. The Helsinki Accords helped to instill a desire for freedom in the Communist countries, and the political scene began to stir.

Toward the “Thaw”

The 1980s ushered in political change. In 1980, the Federation of Hungarian Communities requested to become a member of the WJC. At the time, I had been elected to my first term as president of the European Union of Jewish Students, and it was in this capacity that I took part in the meetings of the WJC.

At the WJC, these were the years following the Goldmann presidency. In 1977 Goldmann was briefly succeeded by Philip M. Klutznick. The presidency of Edgar M. Bronfman, who took over from Klutznick in 1979, shifted the cultural and political center of gravity of the WJC from Europe to the United States. Bronfman, formally elected WJC President in 1981, made the plight of Soviet Jews a top priority. He paid several visits to Central and Eastern Europe during the first years of his presidency.

In 1983, the WJC decided to send a delegation led by WJC Secretary-General Gerhart M. Riegner to Poland on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. From February 28 to March 8, 1985, Riegner also paid a visit to East Berlin. Although he was no longer secretary-general of the WJC at this time, he remained responsible for the WJC’s Geneva office. Berlin was Riegner’s hometown, and I remember that in 1985, he still travelled with a Nansen passport because his German citizenship had been revoked by the Nazis in 1935. Riegner did not want to reclaim his German passport or obtain another nationality. For Riegner, the visit to Berlin was not a political visit; it was a personal return heavily loaded with individual sensations, values, and emotions.

Riegner had always been engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, which is why it was logical that he was invited by the Theological Department of the Von Humboldt University and the Evangelical Academy of East Berlin to conferences on interreligious dialogue. Of course, Riegner met the Lutheran bishops of Brandenburg and the secretary of state for religious affairs, as well as members of the Jewish communities of East Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig. Riegner was invited to an event, which was both religious and academic, although not really political or institutional. Something had changed in the rigid GDR.

The Berlin Wall

In 1985, we found ourselves once again in front of the Berlin Wall, which had started to show cracks due to the fresh wind of glasnost and perestroika that was blowing in Russia. The world learned these two words with great enthusiasm; they meant transparency and restructuring. That same year in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had become Secretary-General of the Communist Party. He planned to change the USSR, and like a game of dominoes, his changes had repercussions around the whole world—in Europe and, of course, in Berlin. We hoped that the Jewish communities would also benefit from this wind, which was imbued with renewal.

In December 1986, Bronfman led a large WJC delegation on an official visit to Poland. This was an opportunity for the organization to officially open negotiations with the Polish government on the protection and restoration of Jewish cultural heritage in Poland. This was a broad agenda for a country that still struggles to recognize the extent of this heritage and which, in its self-proclaimed role of first victim of Nazism, has enormous difficulty sharing the grief of other victims, and resisting the temptation to prioritize suffering.

In May 1987, a WJC Executive meeting was held in Budapest, the first of its kind since the European Executive meeting in Prague in 1947. The presence of the WJC leaders in Budapest was an opportunity for political meetings, but they also had the opportunity to participate in an event the likes of which had not been seen in that part of Europe for decades: the ordination of two rabbis from the Soviet Union at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Budapest. In July 1987, Bronfman paid yet another visit to Central Europe, leading an official WJC delegation to Hungary— the country with the largest Jewish community in East-Central Europe outside the USSR—and to Yugoslavia.

At about the same time, just two years after Riegner’s visit to East Berlin, the WJC considered it the right moment to make an official visit to East Germany. In 1987, I was still president of the European Union of Jewish Students when the WJC asked me to open negotiations with the leaders of the GDR. Bronfman did not only want to see the Schutzwall—he wanted to go to East Berlin, to the other side of the Wall, to get the leaders of the GDR to face up to their responsibilities.

I am a Berliner, and following a very pragmatic and logical idea, Bronfman asked me to get the process moving and obtain what he wanted. On paper, he found it simple and very natural. This visit would be a first as there had never been any official consultations of any international Jewish organization with the GDR, but above all, there had never been any recognition of responsibility for the Nazi crimes on the part of the East German regime. In the opinion of the Communist leaders, upon the division of the remnants of the German Reich into two Germanys, it was West Germany that had inherited all the debts of Nazism, including ethical debts of responsibility for the collective conscience of the German nation. According to their worldview, the Wall had created a clean and precise division, with the good and innocent on one side and the bad and guilty on the other. It was the perfect dichotomy: there was no place in East Berlin for mea culpas or admissions of responsibility. 

The WJC, in contrast, wanted the leaders of the GDR to recognize and assume its fair share of responsibility for Nazi crimes. For the Jewish people, the Wall did not represent any division of responsibility. The WJC had asked me to do the groundwork for the negotiations on the recognition of this debt to the Jewish people so that we could also discuss the subject of reparations at Pankow, then the heart of East Berlin. In April 1988, after making numerous visits and taking part in endless discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the GDR, I managed to organize a secret meeting between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the GDR and Israel Singer, the WJC’s secretary-general, and Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the WJC.

In the meantime, on another front, I was aware that private discussions had started between the GDR and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, more commonly known as the Claims Conference, over possible compensation payments for Holocaust victims by East Germany. The sometimes difficult and always discreet discussions continued for months, as did my trips to East Berlin. These trips also allowed me to establish contacts with the Jewish community in East Berlin, which was always a source of support during complicated negotiations that often gave me the feeling that it would be difficult to bring the process to a positive conclusion. It isn’t easy to play the intermediary between two worlds: one in disarray and wanting to defend itself with a dying ideology, and the other a paragon of the struggle for fundamental rights. Two worlds at two different levels: fortunately the links had been established and deepened, which allowed me to continue the mandate that had been entrusted to me. In June 1988, after more or less one year of claims, instructions, and controversy, the GDR government at long last announced “its willingness to provide humanitarian aid to the victims of the Shoah.” Announcing such willingness in the socialist language of the time meant that the GDR government publicly recognized for the first time that it shared at least some responsibility for making reparations toward the Jewish people. It was the signal that the WJC had been waiting for and in October 1988, the first official delegation of the WJC, led by Bronfman, visited East Berlin. The official photograph captured the moment in the iconography of the Communist regimes: an oversized room, a large table with flowers, and the flashbulbs of the press from the whole world ensuring the publicity of the event.

Just one year later, in October 1989, the Berlin Wall was demolished for good by the will of the people. I was present for this event, which would shake my native city and the rest of the world. To conclude the chapter on the GDR before the country was consigned to the dustbin of history, I continued my talks: effectively, we could not stop with a simple recognition of “willingness for humanitarian aid.” In February 1990, GDR Prime Minister Hans Modrow, who had replaced Erich Honecker as the GDR’s last Communist leader, sent a letter to Bronfman in which he assumed, on behalf of the East German government, the GDR’s responsibility for German crimes committed against the Jewish people by the Nazi regime. This was the statement that the WJC had been waiting for since 1945.

The declaration said: “The German Democratic Republic stands unalterably by its duty to do everything against racism, Nazism, anti-Semitism, and hatred among peoples, so that, in the future, war and fascism will never again start from German soil, but only peace and understanding among people.” In July 1990, a few weeks before the GDR united with West Germany, I managed to obtain a letter, addressed to Bronfman from Modrow’s democratically elected successor, Lothar De Maizière, in which there was mention of reparations. On October 3, 1990, German unification took place, spelling the end of the GDR.

Other Communist regimes and even entire countries disappeared; and the geopolitical situation of the European continent was remodeled. Berlin is no longer divided into four zones, Germany is reunified, some states changed their names, others changed their borders, some separated peacefully, and others imploded following ethnic conflict.

The Jewish communities have followed the destiny of their respective states and have adapted to their new institutions not without difficulty and sadness, but always with a constructive spirit looking to the future. I conclude with a reflection on Berlin. Today, Berlin is once again the capital of a unified Germany, in which we struggle to find the remnants of Nazism and Communism and where the Wall seems to be just a distant memory. The city is still a gigantic construction site, and its Jewish community is one of the liveliest in Europe and growing demographically. Berlin is not a neutral city, nor is it indifferent. It is still a symbolic city, even if it is no longer the symbol of a Europe divided in two. Instead, Berlin has become symbolic of a Europe that fights anti-Semitism, as we witnessed during the mass demonstration at the time of the meeting of the WJC Governing Board in September 2014. On that occasion WJC President Ronald S. Lauder reminded his German audiences, standing alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck, “We are your neighbors and your friends. We all share the same values, we hold the same beliefs.”

As it always has done, the WJC monitors events and continues to be present in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, perpetuating its mission, which is to remain alert to events, always persevering for the distinctiveness and survival of every Jewish community, without allowing the WJC to become a political instrument of any government or regime.