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Offering humanitarian help for half a century of world crises; Escape to Freedom: The Story of the International Rescue Committee, by Aaron Levenstein. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. 1983. 338 pp. $29.95.

By Peter I. RosePeter I. Rose has recently published ''Mainstream and Margins: Jews, Blacks, and Other Americans'' (Transaction Books, 1983). / November 13, 1984



Aaron Levenstein's ''Escape to Freedom'' documents how a relatively small group of Americans and Europeans forged a new structure, independent of church or state, to render assistance to the dispossessed. The agency he describes is the 50-year-old International Rescue Committee (IRC), the offspring of the American-based International Relief Association (with which Albert Einstein was affiliated) and the European Emergency Rescue Committee, both set up to aid those persecuted by Hitler.

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From the start the committee's mission ''was not only humanitarian in the Judeo-Christian tradition but also political in the broadest democratic sense.'' Opposed to many of the isms of the period, IRC's secular Samaritans nevertheless had an underlying ideology of their own. ''Freedom'' was (and remains) the watchword, and ''aid to the victims of totalitarian regimes'' - whether ''Black'' or ''Red,'' in the old sense of those terms - the credo.

In some ways such forthright political views set the IRC apart from a number of other voluntary agencies involved with refugees. Its leading spokesman and board chairman for the past 30 years, Leo Cherne, is well known for his vigorous stances and his public statements in favor of aiding those in flight from repressive societies. What is less well known is the extent of his personal involvement in the major refugee movements of our times. ''Escape to Freedom'' describes Cherne's activities and those of the various ''citizens' commissions'' he organized, from the time of the ill-fated Hungarian uprising to the recent crisis in Kampuchea. Levenstein shows the many ways that Cherne, an economist, lawyer, statesman, sculptor (whose work is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution and the Cabinet Room of the White House), and lobbyist is the public embodiment of the IRC.

While Cherne - and Charles (Carel) Sternberg, the executive director - are the most visible representatives of the agency, it is not simply a one- or two-man band. What has been accomplished over the years has been done with the support, encouragement, and active participation of such figures as Charles A. Beard and John Dewey, Elmer Davis and Dorothy Thompson, Harry Gideonse and William Allen Neilson, Angier Biddle Duke and Claiborne Pell, Albert Shanker and William Casey, Mrs. Lawrence Copley Thaw and Irving Howe, John Richardson and Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, Bayard Rustin and Liv Ullmann. The last two now serve as vice-presidents of the organization.

Early chapters relate how the IRC served the displaced persons of Europe, the Hungarians, the Kurds, the Czechs, the Cubans, the Dominicans, the Haitians, and the Bengalis, the last in an operation run in Calcutta by Levenstein himself. Farther along in the chronology, IRC's activities in Africa are discussed: assistance to those from southern Africa who sought asylum in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), to Biafrans in Nigeria, to Ugandan Asians, and most recently to Ethiopians in Somalia. Levenstein also recounts how IRC workers provided comfort , aid, medical services, job training, and child care to refugees from the People's Republic of China who had escaped to Hong Kong in the days before the entente with the US; to Cubans who made their way to Florida after the revolution; and to thousands of Indochinese, first in Vietnam and later in various countries of ''first asylum'' to which they fled after the fall of Saigon in spring of 1975.