As we have now closed our 100th anniversary year of the end of World War I, a few additional comments seem in order. I am not any sort of beat-the-drum patriot but I somehow had the feeling back on November 11 that the commemorative events we scheduled in America seemed few and far between. Of course we had some parades, and there were several commemorative concerts and other events, but for many Americans Sunday, November 11 and the holiday observance itself – on the following day – seemed just like another day off from work. I came away from Veterans Day feeling that our memorial commemorations of the end of World War I had not been given the level of attention that would have honored the occasion as – in my opinion – it should have been honored.
Since then, two things have caught my attention and I want to share them.
The first is a letter found in our family archives, dated October 11th, 1918. It was from Miss Sophia Levin and sent from Pittsburgh where her letter paper suggested that Miss Levin was connected with “Social, Civic, and Philanthropic Campaigns.” So she was in some way involved in organizational philanthropic work.
The letter is addressed to Sadie R. Cohen, Andrew’s grandmother (we knew her as “Syd”). It was written to Syd at her home in Jersey City, just a few weeks shy of her 16th birthday.
The letter itself – that is, its paper and its frailty after 100 years – is difficult to read here, and since Andrew and I want to share it, I am happy to offer a few excerpts:
My dear Sadie:-
I am in receipt of your lovely letter of Sept. 27th, and in reply want to assure you that I was mighty glad to get a line from you. …
I shall be glad to hear from you often, and want you to know that I appreciate the faithful services you rendered the campaign for Jewish War Relief in Hudson County. When I remember this campaign, I am sure I shall always remember your sweet disposition and willingness.
With very kind regards and best wishes for your business and social success, believe me to be,
[Signed] Sophie Levin
Andrew and I immediately sent ourselves off to research the Jewish War Relief organization. Not surprisingly, the specific organization Syd volunteered for doesn’t seem to exist any more, but we soon learned about the amazing work that took place during the war years under the direction of the American Joint Distribution Committee (now the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). The AJDC started during World War I when, according to one description, “prominent U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, Sr. wired New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff to ask for money to help Jews suffering in Ottoman Palestine,” making AJDC “the first Jewish organization in the United States to give large-scale funding for international relief.” For me, an American who has been fascinated with the work of the post-World War II Marshall Plan since university days, I could not help but consider an analogy: was the AJDC perhaps a First World War “Marshall Plan” for Jewish victims of the war’s damage (but in this case during rather than after the war)?
Certainly it was a large effort, with plenty of participation from Jewish citizens throughout America (and probably somewhat inspired by such posters as this one, on the right, and with the participants wearing a pin establishing their identity). Our search was very rewarding, for we found a report from September, 1918, written by Albert Lucas, the Secretary of the Joint Distribution Committee of the American Funds for Jewish War Sufferers (apparently the “parent” group over all the several supporting organizations) that described the effort as including the participation of over three million Jewish donors throughout the United States, and that, in January, 1917:
President Wilson himself recognized the plight of European Jewry and lent his every encouragement to the effort to raise funds, designating January 27, 1917, as a special day for contributions to Jewish war relief funds.
And what was the result of the efforts of people like the Misses Levine and Sadie Cohen and those other three million participants? Lucas also reported that
Our latest figures show the collections by American Jewry, acting as an entity, in behalf of the Jews in the various War Zones of Europe and Palestine, have totaled, since the beginning of the war in 1914 and up to the present year, approximately $20,000,000, of which the bulk has been disbursed. There has been but a single distributing agency for the disbursing of this huge sum, namely, the Joint Distribution Committee of the American Funds for Jewish War Sufferers, comprising in its membership representatives of various committees, whose duty it has been to collect the funds. Upon this Joint Distribution Committee, of which the Chairman is Felix M. Warburg, many well known leaders of Jewry in America have served.
Certainly there was enough being said about the damage the war was bringing to Europe’s Jewish citizens, and even more broad-based information was coming out of the war, even from the earliest days of 1914, as shown by these two French postcards from the Front (these, a family inheritance from Guy’s side of the family).
Additionally, even as the war was coming to its end (as many hoped), well-known artists such as John Singer Sargent were commissioned to document it. In July 1918, for example, Sargent visited the Western Front, spending time with soldiers near Arras and with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. From that experience he went on to paint what was to become one of his most famous pictures.
So the war’s damage was known to people like Sadie Cohen and it was through her, and people like her, that the nation’s citizens took part in the war, even if they themselves were not on the battlefield.
And what do we take from Syd’s story, and what we know about American citizens in the days of World War I? Is there a lesson for American citizens today? For me, I find I am seriously strengthened from some of what I’m reading, for questions – serious questions – are being asked. For example, in the previous issue of Foreign Affairs (November/December, 2018) Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation, defines the goals of the liberal international order that in many ways, he fears, is currently under attack (he refers to the goals of the liberal order as” increased equality, the advancement of human rights, and the promotion of democracy”). Warren calls for change in the way even major American foundations can now contribute to global order, stating that “The time for change is now, and there isn’t a moment to lose.”
Just this past week, the current issue of the same journal (January/February, 2019) has Gideon Rose pleading the case for the world’s nations to figure out how to avoid either engagement or containment, but to mix them “without sliding into conflict.” What does this mean? Rose’s formula: “combining measures across issue areas into a coherent strategy, prioritizing objectives, and working closely with allies and regional partners, bringing them along not through bullying but by patiently working out a mutually acceptable compromise.”
And how do we get there? Perhaps I’m a bit naive, or just inexperienced in international affairs, but I am – like so many others – a citizen interested in us getting away from Mussolini- or Hitler-esque bullying. I take great comfort in optimism when I see it. The centenary activities in Paris on November 11 were remarkable for helping us build up our faith in what our global society can be. What we heard – for me via online streaming from American History TV C-Span 3 – in the speech by President Macron at the commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice (and later in his introductory remarks at the Paris Peace Forum, which followed the commemoration program) challenged the citizens of the world:
Let’s remember: let’s take away none of the purity, the idealism, the higher principles that existed in the patriotism of our elders. In those dark hours, that vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France promoting universal values, was the exact opposite of the egotism of a people who look after only their interests, because patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of it. In saying “our interests first and who cares about the rest!” you wipe out what’s most valuable about a nation, what brings it alive, what leads it to greatness and what is most important: its moral values.
President Macron also, speaking to all of us, was specific about why these commemoration ceremonies were taking place, and why the Paris Peace Forum – to be the first of annual conversations among world leaders to focus on how peace can be strengthened and sustained – will, it is hoped, provide us with the mechanism for answering all the questions that keep coming up:
It’s those values and those virtues that sustained the people we’re honouring today, those who sacrificed themselves in the fighting to which the nation and democracy had committed them. It’s those values, those virtues that made them strong, because they guided their hearts. The lesson of the Great War cannot be that of resentment by one people against others, any more than it can be to forget the past. It’s a rootedness that forces us to think about the future and what is essential.
And finally, President Macron provided the guidance all nations need to hear and listen to, the specifics of how countries at war long ago and the peace organizations that were created from that conflict, have come into being to provide a framework for world peace.
On our continent, such is the friendship forged between Germany and France and the desire to build a foundation of shared ambitions. Such is the European Union, a freely agreed union never seen in history, delivering us from our civil wars. Such is the United Nations Organization, the guarantor of a spirit of cooperation to defend common goods in a world whose destiny is inextricably linked and which has learned the lessons of the painful failures of both the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles.
Much for us to think about on the first day of a new year, and much to share with one another. In that spirit, I wish you a very happy and healthy new year and send all good wishes that by next year at this time, as we begin a new decade, we will have found some of the answers we are all looking for.