‘It Brings Back The Horror’

‘It Brings Back The Horror’

Amir Shaviv didn’t make his first business call on Tuesday until mid-morning — Central European time. At 4:30 a.m. New York time, he was on the phone to Jerusalem and Budapest, from his Manhattan apartment.
As assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a point man for the rescue and relief organization during the current Yugoslavian refugee crisis, he operates according to two clocks. Local time. And the time in Hungary, six hours ahead of New York, where some 230 Yugoslavian Jews have found refuge with the Joint’s help.
Shaviv, who had gone to sleep after midnight the previous day, after spending the day in Washington on Joint business, was in the office by 9 a.m. Tuesday.
“It’s a typical day” during a crisis, he said.
Steve Schwager, the Joint’s associate executive vice president, who also spent the previous day in Washington, slept in Tuesday morning. Until 6 a.m. He called Budapest too. “I just rolled over and picked up the phone.”
At JDC headquarters, after checking with Fran Morenberg, financial manager, about the JDC’s week-old “mailbox” — the emergency fund-raising effort for non-sectarian activities during the crisis had brought in a record $500,000 — they set up shop in the office of Michael Schneider, JDC executive vice president. He was out of town for the day. Also out of the office Tuesday was Merri Ukraincik, the Joint’s European desk director, who ordinarily would play a critical role in the crisis activities.
Schwager, who during his nine years at the Joint has dealt with refugee crises in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia, says Yugoslavia has struck a special chord in the Jewish community because of images evocative of the Holocaust. “It brings back the horror of what happened to the Jews in very graphic ways.”
“It means,” he says, “that there’s more for us to do.”
At a table in the utilitarian office, across from a wall map of Yugoslavia, Shaviv and Schwager called the Joint’s staff members in Budapest and Albania for the day’s updates, and answered the questions of staffers who stuck their head in the always-open door.
Of the dozen or so JDC professionals in the New York headquarters, most are involved with Yugoslavia these days. “It means that other things go on the back burner,” Schwager says.
Schneider’s office serves as an impromptu crisis center for the Joint, and hence for the American Jewish community, of which the Joint serves as the international arm, funded by UJA-Federation. The office has a few phones, a fax machine, a computer for e-mail messages. Under the Yugoslavian map, on which cities that figured in the Bosnian evacuation during the early-1990s Yugoslavian civil war are circled, maps of Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union are fastened to the wall. In recent decades, the Joint has conducted rescue drives for those Jewish communities, from this office.
The maps stay in place, Shaviv says. “You never know what will happen. We recycle them.”
Marcia Presky, in charge of the Joint’s international development program (read non-sectarian efforts) lays a handful of papers on the table. They are copy for an ad that will be placed in The New York Times and other major newspapers, and a list of an ad-hoc Jewish coalition that is joining the relief effort.
“We’re getting hundreds of calls every day,” from people interested in sending money or providing housing for refugees or serving as volunteers, Presky says.
The mood in Schneider’s office is unhurried. Shaviv and Schwager go down a list of calls to be made; they’re often on separate calls at the same time.
“Everything is under control,” Schwager says. “We’ve been through this plenty of times before. We know what we have to do.
“Budapest is my first priority,” he says. “There are 200-plus Jews there who need our help.”
The Joint, which has set up accommodations in Budapest for the few hundred Yugoslavian Jews and arranged 3,000 rooms, if required, in other communities in central Europe, is also providing medical care for Kosovar refugees (mostly non-Jews) in Albania, and planning to establish counseling programs in refugee camps.
“We’re looking at projects that are long term in nature,” Schwager says. The refugees’ immediate needs, food, shelter, medicine, are already provided for. “The idea will be to return to normalcy in the camps.”
The overseas updates comes over a speaker phone.
Israel Sela, JDC country director in Budapest, tells about the “guests” (“We’re expecting 60 people tomorrow, coming from Belgrade”); about transportation problems (“We’re looking for women drivers,” since Yugoslavia won’t let draft-age men take buses across the border); and about makeshift classes (Yugoslavian Jewish teachers with backgrounds in foreign languages and mathematics are being put to work for young refugees).
Yechiel Bar-Chaim, Paris-based country director for the former Yugoslavia, in Budapest for a few days, gives a briefing from his conversations with the recently arrived Kosovar Jews. “No casualties whatsoever, so far.”
By late morning — early evening in Budapest — the pace of overseas calls slows. Time to return the messages that have piled up. Schwager has requests to provide JDC speakers for Jewish communities in New Orleans, Allentown, Pa., and Grand Rapids, Mich., to talk about the current refugee crisis. “We’ll try to do ‘em all,” Schwager says.
“This is the other side of the crisis,” he says. He means the need to keep American Jewry informed.
Schwager reviews the advertisement copy brought by Marcia Presky and hands it back to her. Everything looks OK to him.
“Make all your calls and get it out,” he says. “If you have any problems, come back and see me.”
“Don’t worry,” Presky says. “I know where you are.”

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