Ear­li­er this week, Leslie Mait­land wrote about choos­ing an epi­graph, the artist Gunter Dem­nig’s Stolper­steine project, and recon­nect­ing branch­es of her fam­i­ly sep­a­rat­ed by the Dias­po­ra of the Nazi years. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I would not be writ­ing this today but for the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee, nor could I have writ­ten my new­ly pub­lished book, Cross­ing the Bor­ders of Time. Indeed, but for the ded­i­cat­ed mis­sion of the Joint” to save imper­iled Jews from mur­der in the Holo­caust, I would not be here at all. It was thanks to the Joint and coop­er­at­ing agen­cies that my moth­er made an eleventh-hour escape from France in 1942 before the Nazis seized the coun­try and sealed its ports. Like thou­sands of oth­er Jew­ish refugees, she and her fam­i­ly fled to safe­ty on ships char­tered by the Joint from neu­tral Por­tu­gal. There were more than four hun­dred pas­sen­gers with her on the Lipari, leav­ing from Mar­seille to Casablan­ca, where they trans­ferred to a freighter, the San Thomé, for a voy­age that last­ed almost two months before the ship was cleared to land in Havana. 

The steamship Lipari, on which Leslie Mait­land’s moth­er sailed with her fam­i­ly from 
Mar­seille to Casablan­ca on March 131942.

The Joint was a curi­ous name I heard often through­out my child­hood, eaves­drop­ping on adult con­ver­sa­tion in New York’s Ger­man-Jew­ish refugee com­mu­ni­ty — the so-called Fourth Reich — where I was born and lived until the age of nine. (“What joint?” I remem­ber ask­ing, sur­prised to hear my very for­mal Ger­man grand­fa­ther speak­ing what sound­ed to me like slang.) But my under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of the human­i­tar­i­an agency’s vital role in sav­ing Euro­pean Jews from Hitler grew expo­nen­tial­ly as a result of my research into my mother’s sto­ry of per­se­cu­tion, romance in wartime, and escape.

In this I was blessed by access to the remark­able archives of the Joint, which per­mit­ted me to study in detail the chal­lenges it com­bat­ed in secur­ing visas, ships, and funds to res­cue as many Jews as pos­si­ble. In a seem­ing­ly indif­fer­ent world, even the Unit­ed States had so sharply restrict­ed entry that between the attack on Pearl Har­bor in 1941 and war’s end in 1945, nine­ty per­cent of Amer­i­can visa quo­tas for would-be immi­grants from Nazi-con­trolled coun­tries in Europe went unfilled. Thus the Joint took on the mis­sion of find­ing safe havens else­where for hunt­ed peo­ple who were trapped in dead­ly sit­u­a­tions.

In my mother’s case, through inter­nal Joint reports, I would learn for the first time of dan­gers that threat­ened her fam­i­ly even after the agency had man­aged to get them out of France. They had been at sea for more than four weeks when Cuban pres­i­dent Ful­gen­cio Batista abrupt­ly revoked per­mis­sion for the San Thomé pas­sen­gers to land. Once again, it was the Joint that saved them. Rush­ing into action, the Joint pro­vid­ed suf­fi­cient inter­na­tion­al pres­sure and induce­ments to pre­vent the San Thomé from meet­ing the same cru­el fate as the St. Louis, whose pas­sen­gers — barred from land­ing in Cuba or the Unit­ed States three years ear­li­er — had been sent straight back to Europe to face the Nazis. 

The tourist iden­ti­fi­ca­tion card pro­vid­ed to Leslie’s moth­er, Janine Gun­zburg­er, aboard 
the San Thomé for debark­ing in Cuba 

Then again, after the San Thomé refugees were allowed to dis­em­bark, the Cuban gov­ern­ment locked them into a deten­tion camp, Tis­cor­nia, where they spent months inex­plic­a­bly con­fined under ter­ri­ble con­di­tions, while forced to pay gross­ly inflat­ed dai­ly fees. Here, too, it was the Joint that fought inces­sant­ly to improve their lot, to bring them food and sup­plies, and ulti­mate­ly to win the refugees’ release. The files of the Joint offered me eye­wit­ness descrip­tions of every­thing that hap­pened. Through once-con­fi­den­tial let­ters and mem­o­ran­da, I sat at tables where its tire­less staff nego­ti­at­ed strate­gies for over­com­ing obsta­cles and crises, as they worked to help the strick­en refugees reclaim lives of free­dom and normalcy. 

Once freed from the Cuban deten­tion camp where the fam­i­ly spent five months, Leslie’s grand­fa­ther, Samuel Sig­mar Gun­zburg­er, was required to pur­chase a Cuban Defense Min­istry for­eign reg­is­tra­tion book­let that includ­ed his fingerprints. 

Accord­ing to Lin­da Levi, the Joint’s direc­tor of Glob­al Archives, I was one of approx­i­mate­ly 850 researchers — schol­ars, jour­nal­ists, film­mak­ers, authors, artists, and geneal­o­gists from twen­ty-eight coun­tries — who annu­al­ly seek per­mis­sion to delve into its records. Housed in New York City and Jerusalem, the archives rep­re­sent a vast repos­i­to­ry of infor­ma­tion gath­ered since the agency’s found­ing in 1914 by wealthy Ger­man-Jews in Amer­i­ca to aid impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties in Pales­tine and East­ern Europe strug­gling through the First World War. Includ­ed in the archives are more than three miles of text doc­u­ments; 1,100 audio record­ings of oral his­to­ries, broad­casts, and his­toric speech­es; 100,000 pho­tographs; 1,300 video record­ings; and data relat­ing to 500,000 names.

Now, just this spring, in a gift to the gen­er­al pub­lic and all researchers, the Joint has start­ed mak­ing this mate­r­i­al avail­able online through its archival web­site: http://​archives​.jdc​.org. With funds donat­ed by Dr. Geor­gette Ben­nett and Dr. Leonard Polon­sky, the project has already dig­i­tized records dat­ing from the agency’s found­ing up through 1932. In a tele­phone inter­view, Ms. Levi told me that the effort is con­tin­u­ing, and full archives cov­er­ing the World War II peri­od should be dig­i­tized by year’s end. Some of those Holo­caust-era doc­u­ments are expect­ed to be online as ear­ly as this sum­mer, she said, adding to what is already there.

Besides the pro­fes­sion­al researchers who will clear­ly ben­e­fit from the expand­ed web­site, Ms. Levi not­ed, mem­bers of the gen­er­al pub­lic have con­sis­tent­ly turned to the Joint seek­ing answers regard­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers, all too often dead or miss­ing.

Jews have ques­tions about their pasts,” she said. There is a hole some­where they’re long­ing to fill. There is some­thing intense­ly pow­er­ful about find­ing infor­ma­tion about one’s fam­i­ly in a doc­u­ment in an archive. I’ve seen peo­ple burst out cry­ing.”

Mean­while, as the agency’s online archives grow, so too do its endeav­ors around the globe. Its work goes on today in more than sev­en­ty coun­tries, where it strives to alle­vi­ate suf­fer­ing, res­cue endan­gered Jews, strength­en Jew­ish life, and pro­vide relief for Jews and non-Jews who fall vic­tim to dis­as­ters. It is my hope that through the online archives, the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the peo­ple served and saved may one day learn their sto­ries and join me in say­ing thank you to the Joint.

Leslie Mait­land is a for­mer award-win­ning reporter and nation­al cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times who spe­cial­ized in legal affairs and inves­tiga­tive report­ing. Her newest book, Cross­ing the Bor­ders of Time: A True Sto­ry of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, is now avail­able.

Leslie Mait­land is an award-win­ning for­mer New York Times inves­tiga­tive reporter who cov­ered the Jus­tice Depart­ment. A grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and the Har­vard Divin­i­ty School, she spent a decade research­ing this book, trav­el­ing to every loca­tion involved to plumb archives and inter­view wit­ness­es. She appears reg­u­lar­ly on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR to dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture. Leslie Mait­land is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.