VE Day and We’re Still Here! The Success of the Unitarian Service Committee during World War II

Although Unitarianism Universalism is one of the smallest denominations in membership, during World War II American Unitarians did the most – of all the US church groups — to help imperiled European refugees. They had a continuous presence in southern France throughout the war and the eight principal rescuers helped several hundred endangered people to emigrate and helped several thousand with basic aid. This program will focus on the work of the Unitarian Service Committee later in the war, the period 1942-1945. At this time, the Unitarian Service Committee had evolved into a major program with close ties to Washington, the Office of Strategic Services and the French Resistance. Next to the American Jewish organizations, the Unitarian Service Committee was the most influential organization to help the Roosevelt administration’s late breaking rescue program in 1944. From an office in a shuttered Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village a middle age Unitarian minister, Charles Joy, helped draw up the U.S. government “war plans” for covert escape throughout Europe. Near the noisy central square of Lisbon, Elisabeth and Robert Dexter tended to the hundreds of refugees stranded in Portugal and went about their own covert activities for the OSS. From his office in downtown Geneva, Noel Field, used secret messengers to channel money to resistance fighters and refugees hiding in southern France. He oversaw a large scale relief program at the close of the war before his own disappearance behind the Iron Curtain. This session will explore some of the characteristics of the Unitarian effort that allowed them to endure and persist where other organizations had already packed up and gone home. We will discuss both the personalities and the philosophy of the main rescuers and their supporters at the headquarters of the American Unitarian Association.