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Saly Mayer

MAYER, SALY (1882–1950), Swiss Jewish leader and representative of the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Switzerland. Mayer was born in Switzerland where he established a successful knitwear factory. He was a member of the Municipal Council of St. Gallen and chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities in 1936. During his term of office, the Association joined the World Jewish Congress. In 1938 he was involved in negotiations with the Swiss government regarding the immigration of Jews but could not overcome the anti-immigrant feeling in Switzerland and thus Swiss policy remained restrictive. In October of that year the Swiss requested that the passport of Jews from Germany be marked with the letter J to distinguish it from non-Jewish passports. During World War II Mayer was appointed director of the Swiss office of the American Joint Distribution Committee, in which capacity he maintained contact with the Jewish communities in German-occupied territories and was responsible for the transmission of funds from the JDC. The initial sum at his disposal was a paltry $6,370 in 1940, less than half that sum in 1941. After the Japanese occupation of China in 1941, he was responsible for the transmission of JDC funds for maintaining approximately 25,000 refugees in Shanghai under Japanese occupation. With the United States at war, American money could not be transmitted directly to enemy countries. A ruse was worked out where the Joint supported the Swiss Jewish Community's efforts to help their own refugees and the Swiss Jewish community would funnel funds to China. He was also involved in attempts to rescue Jews from the Germans. He participated in the Europa Plan of 1942 with the working group in Slovakia whereby, on payment of two to three million dollars provided by Jews in free countries, the remaining million Jews in Europe were to be saved from extermination. In his bitter memoirs Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel accused Mayer of ineffectiveness and bad faith. In reality his options were limited as the Joint in Lisbon did not approve the transaction, so Mayer was forced to send Swiss money illicitly to Bratislava. When adequate sums were not available, Mayer proposed that the money be deposited in blocked accounts in Switzerland until the end of the war. The negotiations dragged on until August 1943, when they were broken off on the orders of Himmler. With the knowledge of Himmler, Mayer negotiated with an S.S. delegation headed by Kurt Becher for the ransom of Jews from Hungary. His hands were tied by the American and Swiss governments, which would not permit the transfer of money and the Joint dissociated itself from these negotiations. Still Mayer arranged for a meeting between Becher and the representative of the *War Refugee Board, the arm of the American government committed to rescue and the only arm of the American government with the freedom to negotiate with the enemy. He could not provide substantive funds and he provided some equipment to buy some time. He was able to achieve a significant – albeit meager – result. Two transports numbering 1,391 – mostly Hungarian Jews – arrived in Switzerland from Bergen-Belsen, while 17,000 others were brought to Vienna.

After the war, he was accused from many sides. Hungarian Jewish leaders accused him of not meeting the Nazi ransom. He, in turn, accused them of financial impropriety. He continued to work for the JDC after the war, working with survivors and with the JDC efforts in Hungary and Romania.

The accusations hurled at him are a manifestation of the desperate conditions of his accusers and their inability to perceive how limited – how few – his options were. To the outside world, Mayer may have seemed the gateway to Jewish power; he lived with the reality of his own powerlessness, especially when judged by the scope of the needs he was asked to meet.


Y. Bauer, Jews for Sale: Nazi-Jewish Negotiations 193345 (1994); idem, American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 193345 (1982); The Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness (1979).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.