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Friday, April 2, 1999 | return to: local


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Film details Jewish laborers’ efforts against the Nazis

by JOSHUA SCHUSTER, Bulletin Staff

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In 1934, the country's laborers had one primary concern -- muscling out of the Depression.

But Jewish laborers had something else on their collective minds.

Their thoughts were turned toward Nazi Germany. Informed by letters from persecuted family members there, the Jewish workers, many of them immigrants, arguably knew more about the impending disaster in Europe than anyone else in America. So they rallied quickly and loudly.

At the AFL's annual convention in San Francisco that year, the newly formed New York-based Jewish Labor Committee made sure the unions wouldn't work for Hitler. The AFL agreed to boycott Nazi products.

The story of the American Jewish laborers' response to Hitler is the theme of a new documentary, "They Were Not Silent: The Jewish Labor Movement and the Holocaust."

The Bay Area's local JLC chapter, in conjunction with other labor unions, is hosting a screening of the film at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 11 at the Humanities Building in San Francisco. The half-hour film, produced by the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in New York, concentrates mostly JLC's efforts in the Big Apple.

Originally comprised mostly of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who labored in garment industry sweatshops, the JLC was often at the forefront of getting relief to Jews in Nazi Germany.

"The JLC was uniquely the voice of the immigrant community," Kenneth Burt, a JLC historian, said by phone from his Sacramento office. "They brought Jewish intellectuals and labor leaders out of Nazi Europe. And the boycott made a huge dent in the sale of German goods."

The film shows that as the war progressed, so did the JLC's relief efforts. The organization sent clothes to refugees in the Soviet Union. Additionally, it helped set up orphanages in America with the Workmen's Circle, a JCL affiliate.

In the Bay Area, the AFL boycott of Nazi goods energized the local JLC, according to Burt. Chapters in San Francisco, Oakland and Fresno led large fund-raising drives. California contributed more than 10 percent of the approximately $1 million raised by the JLC to help get Jews out of Germany.

Battling Hitler "was something very close to so many old-timers who created the JLC," said Bill Becker, who joined the group in the late 1950s. Speaking from his Napa Valley home, he added, "I, myself, was a little bit surprised at the level of cruelty [discovered] when American troops entered the camps."

In the Bay Area, membership peaked at around 1,000 during the war years. But, Burt said, "the [JLC's] influence was very broad" as the JLC formed coalitions with unions and the general Jewish community.

In the years after World War II, the JLC continued to play a major role in organizing California's farm workers and fighting for civil rights. Currently, the organization has a program to promote Holocaust studies in San Francisco schools and sends teachers to Poland to see the concentration camps.

Although local membership has dipped to approximately 100, Burt hopes the screening will help activate a new crop of members.

The showing is sponsored by the JLC, in conjunction with a diverse group of unions and agencies -- United Educators of San Francisco, Local 61, AFT, AFL-CIO, Workmen's Circle Branch 1054, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the Holocaust Center of Northern California and the S.F. Unified School District's Holocaust education program.

"They Were Not Silent: The Jewish Labor Movement and the Holocaust" will screen at 1 p.m., Sunday, April 11 at the Humanities Building, 1185 Vicente, S.F. Admission is free. Information: (415) 469-4780 or (650) 349-6946.


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