A social worker from New York City, Moses Beckelman began his career with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”) in 1939. Born and educated in New York, Beckelman had been active in the city's social services community throughout the 1930s.

Arriving in Vilna in October 1939, he faced a refugee crisis of staggering proportions. With his colleague Yitzhak Gitterman, Beckelman arranged to feed, house, and clothe thousands of people, as well as provide care for children and the elderly, sponsor cultural activities, and offer vocational training.

At the end of 1939, Beckelman and Gitterman set out for Stockholm on an Estonian passenger ship. Beckelman planned to send uncensored reports to the home office in New York and then return to Vilna; Gitterman hoped to flee Europe. The Germans seized the ship, and both men were arrested. Gitterman was sent back to Poland, where he continued to work for the JDC. He perished during a Warsaw ghetto action in January 1943.

Beckelman was able to return to Lithuania, where he became a master negotiator in his struggles to support the refugees despite an ailing economy and a maze of Lithuanian regulations. He left Lithuania in February 1941 and was posted to South America by the Joint.