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Retribution is Not Enough

| 13/04/2009

(based on articles from “In Our Community” published by JTS in October 2008 and “Unsung Heroes,” Ha’aretz, March 2009)

In late 1942, three young men who spent their days studying Torah in the serene confines of The Jewish Theological Seminary determined they could no longer stand idly by as their worst fears were confirmed: Hitler intended nothing less than the total annihilation of Europe’s Jews.

Where was the outcry for action, they wondered, by rabbis, by the rabbinical organizations representing Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations, by the leaders of American Jewry, by the American people themselves?

In September 2008, a public discussion about the efforts by Noah Golinkin (z”l),Jerome Lipnick (z”l), and N. Bertram (Buddy) Sachs to alert American Jews and Christians about the Holocaust took place as part of “They Spoke Out: American Voices for Rescue From the Holocaust,” the sixth national conference of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which was held at the Fordham University Law School in New York City.

The Conference session “Retribution Is Not Enough,” featured the sons and grandson of the student activists: Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel; Cantor Abe Golinkin, who recited an original prayer composed by Rabbi Noah Golinkin in 1943; Rabbi Jonathan Lipnick, rabbi in residence, William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS; and Mishael Zion, the grandson of Buddy Sachs, who read a letter from Rabbi Sachs who was not able to attend the conference.

Told that the Allies had promised retribution for the genocide once the war was over, Golinkin, Lipnick, and Sachs decided that retribution after the fact would not help those who still had a chance to survive. They created a student action committee that had, as its goals, to publicize the news from Europe and push Jewish leaders into taking action.

Their activism resulted in a Jewish-Christian inter-seminary conference on the plight of European Jewry in February, 1943, with the participation of eleven theological seminaries. Hundreds of students and faculty attended sessions that alternated between JTS and Union Theological Seminary. In March, 1943, the three young men co-wrote “Retribution Is Not Enough,” an essay published in The Reconstructionist that offered American Jews a concrete plan of action to help save Europe’s Jews.

“That was a very important article,” Prof. Golinkin explained. “Because the basic attitude of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and many others at the time was to let the Americans win the war, and afterwards we [the Jews] will have a homeland and we’ll take revenge on the Germans. Their article said, ‘retribution is not enough. Taking revenge on the Germans won’t help if there are no Jews left in Europe.’”

This group of young students made a significant impact on the Synagogue Council of America (SCA), the national umbrella group for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues, whose representatives created an emergency committee to raise awareness of the Nazi genocide after meeting with Golinkin, Lipnick, and Sachs.

The SCA also followed up on an idea proposed by the three students: a nationwide publicity campaign that coincided with sefirah (the seven weeks of semi-mourning between Passover and Shavu’ot). That effort included special prayers, moments of silence, letter-writing campaigns to elected officials, and memorial protest rallies at which participants wore black armbands. (Many years later, Vietnam War protestors wore similar emblems.) On May 2, 1943, memorial rallies were held across the country by both Jews and Christians.

“According to my mother,” said Rabbi Jonathan Lipnick, “it was the Holocaust that moved my father to activism. Devastated by being unable to save more Jews, he committed the rest of his life to acting on injustice wherever he witnessed it. He had the uncanny ability to enter into the worlds of those oppressed, whether they were Soviet Jews, embattled Israelis, or disenfranchised African Americans.”

In his letter to the session attendees, Rabbi Buddy Sachs wrote, “As we learned more about it, the Nazi decision to destroy the Jewish people shocked us, as it did the entire student body. In response the student body set up a committee-of three-to spread the word of the impending destruction in Europe. Our committee spent its time going from New York office to New York office, meeting with Jewish leadership one by one. Sometimes the reaction to our work was at least positive, but on most occasions our cause was pushed away, as we were told: ‘America must win the war against the Nazis before it can take up this issue.’ Our response was: ‘if we don’t act now, there won’t be any Jewish community left to save.’ But American Jewish leadership did not sense the dread, and did not respond with appropriate desperation.”

Like Jerome Lipnick and Buddy Sachs, Noah Golinkin also felt that not enough Jews were saved. His son, Prof. David Golinkin remembers that his father, who died in 2003, never liked to talk about his Holocaust initiative, because he, like other activists, felt that they didn’t achieve enough. They thought that had they been able to get the government to act sooner, millions of Jews might have been saved, instead of 200,000 who were saved by the War Refugees Board which was finally set up by the U.S. government in January 1944.

As Cantor Abe Golinkin stated, “My father identified a problem, and then found a solution, whether it was saving Jews physically [during the Holocaust] or culturally [through the Hebrew Literacy Campaign and the Hebrew Reading Marathons, two adult Hebrew literacy projects that continue today]. What I have learned from him is that all Jews are responsible for each other. We can’t sit on the sidelines. We must do things ourselves.”

The efforts of Golinkin, Lipnick, and Sachs were an important part of the process of making rescue a top priority on the American Jewish agenda and raising American public awareness of the mass murder. All three went on to successful careers in the rabbinate: Jerome Lipnick as the religious leader of several congregations across the country; Noah Golinkin as both a pulpit rabbi and the originator and driving force behind the Hebrew Literacy Campaign; and Buddy Sachs as a longtime rabbi in Minneapolis. They remained inextricably linked throughout their lives: close friends and fellow activists dedicated to eradicating injustice.

Rabbi David Golinkin and Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute, are now collaborating on a book about the 1940s student activists. It will include new research on the impact of the student group as well as the remarks and panel discussion from the Fordham conference. Intended both for the general public and classroom use, the book will also reprint many original documents related to the students’ activism.

To coincide with this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Rabbi David Golinkin will play the role of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in the Holocaust-era play, “The Accomplices,” which will be performed at the Center Stage Theatre at Jerusalem’s Merkaz Hamagshimim, from April 20-23 and April 26. A docu-drama written by former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub, the play tells the story of the Bergson Group which led a public campaign to force the Roosevelt administration to save the Jews of Europe. Tickets:

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