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World War II: American Private Relief Organizations

Figure 1.-- Here we see an unidentified European Wirld war II refugee boy inspecting an UNRRA food packet. Unfortunately the photograph is not dated and we do not know the location. We suspect it was taken somewhere in occupied Germany during 1945. The caption simply read, "A tousled haired young boy examines his ration of meal from Unrra. Most of the food supplied by UNRRA is for making into the thicker more filling soups."

The Allies, meaning primarily the United States, began organizing relief programs for the refugees created by the Axis aggressions even before entering the War. The United States had played a substntial role in World War I relief, saving million of lives. The same was the case during World War II. The initial efforts were to get people out of NAZI-ocontrooled Europ. Two early American efforts were the Emergency Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children. Only as the Allies began to achieve battlefiekd victories was it possible to help really large numbers of people by getting food and other relief supplies to them. Once involved in the War, President Roosevelt began using the term United Nations. It was esentially the creation of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations. Roosevelt had been a strong supporter of Wilson and the League. The League was so controversial and Roosevelt had such a know down drag out fight with the isolationists who hated the League that he came up with a new name and prepared for the creation of an actual organiation that would replace the League. The primary United Nations orgaization to assist refugees was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). This agency was created before the United Nations itself. During and in the immediate post-War period, it was largely financed and supported by the United States. Food was a priority. The Axis as a matter of policy sought to deny food to trgeted populations. The Allies as a result attempte to supply desperate refuges with food. Here UNRRA played a major role. Several million people as a result of UNRRA were saved.

American Jewish Joint Destrubution Committee (JDC)

The American Jewish Joint Destrubution Committee (JDC) was estanlihed after the Ottoman Empire entered World War by joining the Central Powers. This isolated Jewish communities in Palistine and the wider Middle East cintrolled by the Ottomans (1914). The JDC was formed by a temporary collective of three existing religious and secular Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Relief Committee, the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War, and People’s Relief Committee). (1914). Jewish communities in the Pale also suffered as the Germans n the Eastern Front pushed into Poland (1915). This temporary effort turned into a permnent effort. And with the rise of the NAZIs in Germany (1933), once of the greatest humanitarin crises in history developed. At first it was primrily German Jews that were targeted. With the outbreak of the War and the the NAZI Holocaust (1939), all of European Jewery faced the threat of annihilation. The severity of the crisis was beyond the capability of any privte organization to address. put new, unprecedented demands on the American Jewish community and JDC to respond. And the bility of the JDC to help was severly restricted as NAZI conquests expanded making it imposible for the JDC to operate in the contries where Jews were most threatened. As the NAZIs reverted to mass miurder, relief efforts could do little. ThevJDC did what it could. The managed to get 81,000 out of NAZI-occupied Europe to safety. The JDC managed to smuggled aid to some Jewish prisoners in labor camps and helped finance the Polish Jewish underground in preparations for the Warsaw Ghetto revolt (1943). The JDC proved to be a major channel to get reports on the Holocaust to American Jewish leaders and the internationl media. After the liberation of Europe progresse and especially with the NAZI surrender (May 1945), the JDc was finlly ble to get relief supplies to the Holocaust victims. The JDC played a major role in the Displsceds Persons (DP) camps

American Red Cross

Several hundred private American groups were involved in relief efforts during World War II. The most important continued to be the American Red Cross (ARC). The ARC played a different role than it did in World war I. It was less involved in civilian refugee relief. Much of the civilan role it had played in World War I was taken over by UNRRA. This ws in part because the humanitarian crisis in Europe was far beyond the capabilities of any private organization. The ARC was involved in civilian relief, but focused more narrowly on aiding American troops and POWs. The ARC made a much sharper distinction between civilian war relief and services for the American military. The ARC provided supervisory and coordinating functions for civilian relief, but generally, with a few exceotion did not send personnel to direct civilian war relief This task was mostly taken over by Government agencies. TThe first war action was an early blood processing program for relief of English war victims (1940). It was called called Plasma for Britain and was overseen by Dr. Charles R. Drew. The Red Cross enrolled more than 104,000 nurses for military service, prepared 27 million packages for American and Allied prisoners of war, and shipped over 300,000 tons of supplies overseas. A new program requested by the military was a ational blood program that collected 13.3 million pints of blood for use by the armed forces. One major difference in World War II was that the totalitarian powers that played such a major role in the War, were not prepared to allow humanitarian efforts to reach millions of people, in some cases people targeted for death. The Red Cross sent millions of packages of food to American POWs held by the Germans and Italians. The Germans behaved correctly in delivering the packages, although not in adequately feeding POWs. There were also shipments to POWs held by the Japanese, but only a few hot through. The Red Cross also began a blood collection service to aid the wounded. They also established clubs like the famous Rainbow Corner to offer entertainment and food to servicemen.

Busy Buddies

This was a small group organized organized by 45 American Jewish ladies. Busy Buddies raised money to support Jewish children in two French orphanages. To help raise money, the brought two of the orphans to America the children told their hear-rencding stories at luncheons and parties and helped raise money for the orphanage effort. The children were very young. We are not entirely sure just how much they understood about what had happened to them and their parents. And thus we are not sure just what the children said in these events. While a small effort it is an examle of many such efforts organized by churches, syngoues, and charitable efforts around the country. Individual efforts like this were characteristic of the American relief effort. A Life magazine articledescribed how the children got 'gifts from friends here and help for their friends abroad'.


CARE began with shipments of food to war- torn Europe to prevent starvation and hunger. Seeing the privation througout Europe, 22 American charities (civic, religious, cooperative and labor organizations) founded the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE). They began to deliver millions of CARE packages all over Europe. These small packages with food and other relief supplies helped families survive midst vast food shortages. They had a huge impact on the lives of the recipients. CARE packages even helped people in former enemies, Germany and Japan. CARE did not cease to operate as Europe began to recover. Over the next three decades, CARE shifted its focus from helping Europeans to delivering assistance in the developing world. A major effort was made to help Koreans after the Communists invaded South Korea. As the developing world becme CARE's focus, the effort changes from just relief supplies and food distribution to a broad range of programs, including education, natural resources management, nutrition, water and sanitation, and healthcare in Africa, Asia and Latin America. CARE also began an effort to assist people hit affected by major emergencies, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, famines, and other disasters. A major focus of CARE today is poverty. CARE was founded in 1945 when abjectly neeed people were the result of a lack of basic goods, services, and healthcare bcause of World War II. As Europe recovered, CARE noted the great beeds of people in the Third world. CARE officials began to junderstand that poverty and want is often caused by the denial of rights, opportunities and assets. The cause varies, but is a mixture of social exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination. CARE shifted to what we call a ‘rights based approach’ to development (early-1990s). Although Europe remained part of the groups name for decades, it even by the late-1950s was not the focus of operation. (Actually the acronmy was so widelu used tht few prople knew that the 'E' meant Europe. The organizers finally decided to change the meaning of its acronym to 'Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere' (1993). CARE recently began a new effort to focusing on women’s empowerment (2007). This came from understanding from more than six decades of experience that women are the key to lifting entire families out of poverty.

Emergency Rescue Committee

The 32- year old Varian Fry left for France soon after the NAZI victory. He was assigned to be the representative in France of the Emergency Rescue Committee, a privately organized relief group. Their goal was to recognize people being percecuted by NAZI officials. He arrived with $3,000 and a list of individuals that were thought to be most endangered. He expected that it would take about 1-month to complete his assignment. Fry like most Americans, however, did not comprehend the full dimensions of NAZI barbarity. Fry extended his stay and eventually worked there for 13 months until being driven out by the NAZIs asAmerica and Germany moved closer to war. He left behind hin in France a system of escape routes that would save many lives. Fry engaged in a wide range of illegal asctivities, including converting dollars on the black-market (where much higher exchange rates prevailed), conspired with the criminal underworld, forged documents, and chartered illegal voyages. Fry while in France is believed to have rescued about 1,500 people targeted by the NAZIs.

Foster Parents Plan for War Children

Foster Parents Plan for War Children was founded in Britain as Foster Parents Plan for Children in Spain by British journalist John Langdon-Davies and refugee worker Eric Muggeridge (1937). Langdon-Davies conceived the idea of a personal relationship between a child and a sponsor –- a model that puts the child at the centre, and remains the core of what we do. The initial mission was to provide food, accommodation, and education to children whose lives had been turned into nightmare by the Spanish Civil War. The name was changed with the outbreak of World War II to Foster Parents Plan for War Children. The mission became to promote and protect the rights of children affected by war. They had a base in Britain from the original foundation, but became a largely American group as this was where the funding came and where many children were placed. The organization both placed children with familiesand arrnged for Americans to support children in their own countries. Nrs. Roosevelt had three foster children through the program. Plan International USA, was incorporated as "Foster Parents Plan, Inc., during 1939 in New York to help connect U.S. donors to a continuously growing number of sponsored children. The group helped displaced children from all over Europe. They did not have access to the children located in NAZI-occupied Europe. The first children they could reach were in Italy (1943). And then many more countries after D-Day (1944). Allied armies liberted one country after another. After the war, the group extended aid to children in France, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece and briefly in China, Czechoslovakia and Poland until the Communits seized power. The organization expanded to work with displaced children throughout war-torn Europe. After the War and Europe began to revover, the group shifted it efforts to needy children in developing countries. The name was changed to Plan Internationl. The American Plan was one of the first Plan International federation members. Plan International is now a global organisation that works in 51 developing countries to promote child rights and lift millions of children out of poverty.By the 1970s, Plan gradually began working with children throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. The international parent organization Foster Parents Plan shortened its name to become simply Plan International (1974). The American organization followed suit, changing its name to Childreach/Plan International to avoid the program confused with local foster care programs. And then to th cirrent name, Plan USA.

International Help for Children Organization

We notice a new report about a group called the International Help for Children Organization. They were aiding children stuck in World War II refugee camps in West Germany. We have been unable to find any other informstion about them. he children they are helping may not be orphans, but the children of families still living in the camps. One of the problem emptying the camps was that many people did not want to return to their homes in Commnunist dominated Eastern Europe.

National War Funds (1943-46)

Japan invaded China (1937) and Germaby invaded Czechoslovalia (1939) even before World war II began. Hitler and Stalin launched World war II by invading Poland (September 1939). These were just the first victims of Axis and soviet aggression. An incredible list of vicymized ntions followed. Americans wanted no ort of the War, but their sypathies went out to the victims of aggression. The United States is amult-ethnic nation and their was a speial interest on the part of Americns to assist their countries of origin. As aggressor countries invaded one country after another, a depresingly long list of relief groups were organized. The very number of orgnizations proived to be problem. Not only was it inefficent and expensive for each group to have their own fund raising effort, but the general public could not donate to all of them. As a result, President Roosevelt set up the National War Fund (April 1943). The NWF obtained funds through coordinate locl war chest campaigns. The different war relief assocuations were admitted to local war chests. The various relief associations worked together on war chest drives.

Greek War Relief Association (1940- )

Greece attmpted to remain neutral after the outbreak of World war II (September 1939). Without Hitler's approval, Mussolini invaded Greece from Albania (October 1940). The Greek Orthodox Church, began to raise funds in the United States and to organize relief efforts. At the time the supplies could be dlivered by sea as the Italians did not reach Greek ports. The Greeks managed to not only fight off the Italians, but launched a couter offensive. The Greeks were unprepared to fight off the Germans when they invaded (April 1941), even with British aid. The Germans occupied all of Greece and seized control of the food supply. Even worse, the Brutish naval blockade of Axis controlled areas made it impossible not onlt to receive relief supplies but to import food. Greek was not self suffucent in food and serious food shortages developing into a famine occurred -- the Great Famine (Μεγάλος Λιμός). Thousands of people died, alrgough there are various estimates as to the exact amount. We note estimates of 70,000 to 300,000 victims. [Mazower] The lower estimate was fom the NAZI controlled media. This all occured before America was drawn into the War. The British locked in a life and death struggle with NAZI Germany were initially reluctant to allow in even food and medecine because the Germans could seize some of the shipments for their own use. In manu other areas, famine would not have concerned the Germans. In fact it was part of the German Hunger Plan to kill people in the millions. Greece was not, howeve, one of the countries that the Germans wanted to kill off in he millions. Thus because of the crisis in Greece, the British and Germans reached a compromise to allow shipments of grain to come from the neutral Turkey. At the time, Turkey was within the British blockade zone.

U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM)

The U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM) is best known for its efforts to try to save Jewish refugee children during World War II. AFSC Chairman Clarence Pickett organized the USCOM (JKune 1940). USCOM also worked to save British children when the NAZIs began to bomb Britain into submission. Images of German bombing raids and European refugees had a major impact o American opinion and this only increased when the Germans began bombing Britain. USCOM was organized by the Quaker American Friends Service Connitte (AFSC), but operated on a non-sectarian basis. As America was neutral, USCOM/AFSC was able to operate in Vichy France even safter Hitler declared war on America. They managed to save over 800 Jewish children in Vichy France. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt strongly supported their activities. USCOM spokesmen lobbied for immigration support, but this was not achieved until after the War. Mrs. Roosevelt's support helped USCOM expand its work. The committee continued to function after the War when changes were made to the immigrsation laws. USCOM closed (1953).

Unidentified Groups

We notice private efforts in Ameica to collect food and other relief supplies like blankets and clothing. There was strong desire to assist the people left destitute by the War. Much of the interest was to aid Europeans, but their was aid going to Europe as well, both China and Japan. Usually the sporsoring organization was indicated, but in some instances we have found images in which the sponsor was not identified. The need was so great that Government-funded programs were desperately needed. But the private humanitarian efforts were also important in assisting the millions whose lives were disrupted and damnaged by the War--both adults and children.


Mazower, Mark. Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941–44 (Yale University Press: 1995).


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Created: 4:09 AM 4/1/2015
Last updated: 6:21 PM 9/9/2023