Eighty years ago this week, the United Kingdom engaged in one of the few rescue efforts of Jews from the clutches of Nazi Germany. Called the “kindertransport,” the rescue involved the relocation of approximately 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the “Free City” of Danzig (now Gdansk) into the UK. While pitifully small in light of the enormous tragedy that would enfold just ten months later with the outbreak of World War II, each life saved by the kindertransport was precious. One would prove to be a favorite mentor of mine in the Jewish communal world.
Joseph Hess is and was a remarkable man. A longtime resident of Orange County, California, Joe would give back to the Western World far more than he took. A research scientist, Joe was responsible for space testing of emerging technology as a Senior Manager for the United States Space Program. Not content with helping his adopted United States, Joe worked with developing countries as a member of the International Academy of Aeronautics and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.
I first met Joe in the 1990’s when I was the National Chair of the National Future Leadership of the Jewish National Fund of America. Joe was one of the lay leaders from Southern California. His love and passion for Israel and the Jewish world was palpable. While he never kept his involvement in the kindertransport a secret, he never dwelled on it either. Joe always has looked forward, never losing sight of the fact that the blessings given to him were denied to so many other similarly situated Jewish children in the 1930’s.
For many years Joe chaired the JNF subcommittee on international relations, concentrating on the United Nations. Thanks in large part to Joe’s work, in 2005 Israel hosted its first UN Conference on combating desertification, a passion of Joe’s.
In 1996, shortly after I was asked to join the Board of Directors of the Jewish National Fund of America, it became apparent that the JNF of America was not being run with appropriate accountability. While I never was shown evidence of any illegality, the Senior Management at that time did not have proper financial safeguards in place. Too much money was being spent on expenses and not enough of the money raised its intended beneficiary, the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
Much of the old JNF lay leadership and the American Jewish community as a whole then turned its back on the JNF. It was hard to blame them. The situation was so bad that it was questionable whether or not the JNF of America had enough money to make its next payroll.
While others ran, Joe stayed. He and I were two of eight who agreed to remain as members of the Board of Directors to restart the organization. We all knew that under applicable American law each member of the Board of Directors could be liable personally for any payroll which had been earned by employees but not paid. At the time I was young and single, but Joe already had retired. He had long since done his share for the Jewish people. Nobody could have blamed him had he just walked away with so many of the rest of the lay leadership. But that wasn’t Joe. He remained on, helping us put together an entirely new professional management team, then worked like crazy to help turn the JNF from the rather piddling organization it was in 1996 to the immense powerhouse it is now.
Only 10,000 out of six million were saved by the kindertransport, but each one had a story. Both sides of my family had been in the United States for many years by that point, but being Jewish means we all as a people are affected by what happens to everyone else. Happy 80th anniversary of the event that saved your life Joe. It also enriched my life and strengthened the entire Jewish people.