Laura Margolis Jarblum
1903 – 1997
Laura Margolis Jarblum was the first female overseas representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). After World War II, she became JDC’s first female Country Director.
Laura Margolis’s career with JDC spanned three continents. She was working with Jewish refugees in Cuba when the St. Louis approached Havana harbor in May 1939. She was the JDC representative in Shanghai when the Japanese occupied the city in December 1941. She was the JDC representative in France when the three prison ships carrying the passengers from the Exodus 1947 arrived at Port-de-Bouc. She once quipped in an interview, “If I’d been a man I would have joined the Navy and seen the world, but since I was a woman I joined the JDC.”
Laura Margolis was born in 1903 in Constantinople. Her maternal grandfather, Dr. Solomon Schwartz, was personal physician to the Sultan of Turkey. Her father, Herman Margolis (1872–1959), a halutz from Russia, had gone to Palestine in the 1890s and subsequently studied agronomy in Berlin. In 1900, he was sent to Turkey to establish hakhsharot where Zionists from Russia could prepare for life in Palestine. He married Dr. Schwartz’s daughter, Cecelia (1876–1963), on May 25, 1902. The couple had two children, Laura and her brother, Otto (1907–1994).
In 1907, when funding for the hakhsharot project was about to end, Herman Margolis was persuaded by his father and brothers to join them in Dayton, Ohio. Although he still intended to go to Palestine, Margolis hesitated to do so as long as the region was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which was actively restricting Jewish settlement.
Cecelia Margolis and the children joined Herman Margolis in the United States in 1908 and the Margolis family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Laura Margolis attended local schools and in 1926 received a B.S. from Ohio State University. In 1927 she received a professional degree in social work from the School of Applied Social Sciences at Western Reserve University in Cleveland where she studied group social work.
During the 1930s Laura Margolis worked for Jewish social service agencies in Cleveland and in Buffalo, New York. In 1939, the National Refugee Service, an agency associated with JDC, sent her to Cuba to assist the approximately five thousand Jewish refugees who had fled there from Nazi Germany. Many of the refugees were seeking entry into the United States and Laura Margolis worked closely in Cuba with American consular officials.
Impressed with Laura Margolis’ work in Cuba, United States State Department officials requested that JDC send her to assist the United States consular officials in Shanghai, where there were also thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. When she arrived there in May 1941 she found twenty thousand Jewish refugees in the city. Approximately eight thousand were dependent on JDC relief and were receiving one meal a day in JDC soup kitchens.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in December 1941 the continued existence of the soup kitchens was placed in jeopardy. According to United States Treasury regulations, JDC, an American organization, could not transfer funds to enemy countries. The Jewish refugees who were dependent on JDC for food were now in danger of starvation.
Several months earlier, Laura Margolis had received a cable from JDC stating that, in the event of war, she was authorized to borrow funds in JDC’s name, to be repaid by JDC after the war. When the war broke out, Laura Margolis took this cable to the Japanese authorities. She proposed to the Japanese that they allow her to borrow money in order to keep the JDC soup kitchens functioning and thereby prevent hunger riots, and the Japanese agreed. She was able to raise enough money to continue feeding five thousand refugees per day.
Laura Margolis not only kept the soup kitchens functioning, but also modernized them by installing new kitchen equipment, which she requisitioned with the assistance of the Japanese. The modern equipment reduced the operating costs of the kitchens so that more efficient use could be made of the limited funds available. In addition, Margolis organized a committee which would be able to supervise the relief programs in her absence, since she did not know how long the Japanese would allow her to remain free.
Laura Margolis was interned by the Japanese in February 1943 as an enemy alien and was released in a prisoner exchange in September 1943. On returning to the United States in December 1943, she succeeded in arranging for JDC remittances to Shanghai to be resumed.
When Laura Margolis returned to the United States, she learned for the first time about the concentration camps and the extermination of the Jews of Europe. She insisted on being sent to Europe immediately, despite the objections of JDC executives who were reluctant to send a woman overseas into a war zone.
In March 1944 Laura Margolis arrived in Lisbon. Her first job in Europe was to arrange a home for children who were being smuggled over the Pyrenees from France to Spain. She established a home for the children in a villa near Barcelona and brought the children there from the border posts in the mountains. Once the children’s home was established, she returned to Lisbon, flew to England and from there to Sweden, where she organized a parcel service from Stockholm to the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen. In January 1945 she returned to England, then proceeded to liberated Belgium. Since only military personnel could enter the liberated areas, she was attached to the United States Army with the rank of colonel and assigned to the SHAEF headquarters in Brussels.
In Belgium she had her first encounter with concentration camp survivors straggling back from Germany and Eastern Europe. As the JDC representative in Belgium, she provided relief to needy survivors and assistance to children’s homes and homes for the aged. She also gave help to members of the Palestine Jewish Brigade who were shepherding survivors through Belgium on their way to Palestine. She made several forays into the Netherlands to bring aid to the Dutch Jewish community, and she entered Amsterdam just twenty-four hours after the Germans had left. For her work in postwar Belgium, she was decorated by the Belgian government.
In 1946 Laura Margolis was sent to France as JDC’s first female Country Director. Her task was to help the thousands of Holocaust survivors who remained in the country and to help rebuild the French Jewish community, which had been destroyed during the war. She set up children’s homes, established vocational training programs and provided for the sick and elderly. She helped establish a permanent fundraising body for the French Jewish community. She also supported hakhsharot and Youth Aliyah homes and tried to help those who were organizing illegal immigration to Palestine.
In 1950 Laura Margolis married Marc Jarblum (1887–1972) who had emigrated to France in 1907. Jarblum was a Zionist leader, editor of two Po’alei Zion Yiddish newspapers in Paris and active in the Resistance during World War II. In 1953 the couple immigrated to Israel. From 1954 to 1955 Laura Margolis served as the Director of Social Services for Malben, an organization set up by JDC in 1949 to care for elderly, chronically ill and handicapped immigrants. At the end of 1955 she took a leave of absence from Malben in order to study Hebrew, but was drafted by the Jewish Agency to work with new immigrants in the development towns. In 1958 she returned to Malben as Director for Special Projects, working with handicapped children and adults.
Laura Margolis’s family background, her gift for languages, her courage and her adventurous spirit led her into a unique career in the field of Jewish international welfare service. An able and effective administrator, she is credited with having saved thousands of lives in Shanghai under Japanese occupation. She played a major role in the rebuilding of the French Jewish community after World War II. During her years at Malben she introduced new approaches to the care of the handicapped and aided the development of organizations for the handicapped in the State of Israel.
Marc Jarblum died in 1972; Laura Margolis Jarblum retired in 1974. After her retirement she returned to the United States to be near her family. She died in Brookline, Massachusetts on September 9, 1997.
Kerssen, Julie L. “Life’s Work: The Accidental Career of Laura Margolis Jarblum.” M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee: 2000; Kranzler, David. Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai 1938–1945. New York: 1976; Tokayer, Marvin, and Mary Swartz. The Fugu Plan: The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews during World War II. New York: 1979; Reports, correspondence, transcripts of interviews. JDC Archives, New York and Jerusalem.