“He was a Renaissance Man.” That’s what Howard Rieger, former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said about Arthur Jaffe, who died recently in Florida at the age of 93. Much was made of Jaffe’s passing at a special memorial service in that state because he had become known as a major philanthropist and promoter of the arts.
After Jaffe left Pittsburgh in 1984 to head south for medical reasons, he continued to pursue his love of books. He later was to establish the Arthur & Mata Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University. In 1998 he donated his collection of 2,800 books to the university. He continued to make book purchases for the library and helped support research and workshops in the various arts associated with books, in hand papermaking, typography and book design. It was an amazing contribution; it was his passion.
But Art Jaffe had other passions as well. And Israel and the Jewish community was also at the top of the list. Art was a local boy, a native of Butler, the son of Max and Fannie Jaffe and older brother of Norman Jaffe now of Pittsburgh. In the early 1980s, Jaffe was hired by Howard Rieger to launch an endowment fund for the Jewish Federation. Prior to that, in 1979, he had become the director of development at the Carnegie.
But 30 years before that, in the late 1940s, Jaffe had had a very different occupation. He had been an intelligence officer for the Haganah, the Jewish defense forces. He had come from a family of staunch Zionists. In fact, as Jews in Palestine were preparing for the showdown with the Arabs over the founding of the State of Israel, a small group of Pittsburghers were meeting at Max Jaffe’s farm in Butler to map out their plan to collect all manner of hardware and software needed by the Jewish fighters in their struggle for the state. The younger Jaffe was actually in Palestine at the time, gathering intelligence for Jewish leaders who were meeting United Nations officials in crucial talks regarding the future of the country.
Jaffe had trained as an infantry officer at Penn State but then had been transferred during World War II to a military intelligence school in Washington, D.C. As part of a combat intelligence company in the U.S. Army, he wound up on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. From a well-hidden French bunker, he would broadcast radio messages to the Germans urging them to surrender and offering food and clothing to them if they did. Apparently, his efforts met with real success.
After the war, Jaffe was one of the first Americans to go to the Hebrew University on the GI Bill of Rights. However, not soon after he had arrived in Palestine, he was approached by the Haganah to work for them. While he never saw combat, his job was to tap telephone lines to learn what the oil companies and other anti-Zionist forces were up to. He also was detailed to collect intelligence on UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine), which was deciding on its recommendation to resolve the conflict between the Arabs and Jews. (They ultimately decided to divide the land into a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish state, but the Arab League refused to accept the recommendation, and war ensued.)
As part of his effort he met the young girls who were the secretaries to the U.N. committee to get information from them. “They were not security conscious. I was a good bar fly, but I never thought of myself as a spy,” he said. “I did get some good stuff though.”
Jaffe met with David Ben-Gurion and lived with Dr. Chaim Yassky for several months. (Yassky was later killed in
an infamous Arab assault on the medical convoy heading to the Had-assah Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem before the state was declared.) When Jaffe returned to the United States, he continued his work on behalf of the Zionist cause. He recruited volunteers to fight the Arabs, made speeches to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences and was himself involved with efforts to acquire machine tools for weapons’ manufacturing.
Art Jaffe was a very affable man who over the course of his lifetime made great contributions to the causes he so deeply espoused. He had a ready smile and a zest for life, and one would never know from his gentle appearance that he had made such a mark. His loss is keenly felt by family and friends.
Barbara Burstin is the author of “Jewish Pittsburgh” and the forthcoming “Steel City Jews in Prosperity, Depression and War.”