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The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust

\Responsa in a Moment: April 2011

Note: This month’s column is not a responsum. In honor of Yom Hashoah, which is observed this year on May 1st in the evening and May 2nd, this column summarizes the main points of The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust by Rafael Medoff and David Golinkin, published by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Schechter Institute and Targum Shlishi, Jerusalem, 2010. All page numbers in parentheses refer to that book. The book can be ordered from Gefen Publishing House.

I) November 25, 1942
Every morning, at the conclusion of the shaharit service at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the students would walk over to the campus cafeteria for breakfast. And every morning, my father, Noah Golinkin, would make a detour. He would walk down Broadway two blocks to a newsstand at 120th Street and buy two newspapers: The New York Times and the Yiddish-language Morgen Zhurnal (Morning Journal). As he walked back to the Seminary, he would scan the papers for news about the plight of the Jews in his native Poland, from which he had escaped just four years earlier.

On November 25, 1942, my father was thumbing through the Times as he approached the corner of 121st Street. What he saw on page 10 made him stop in his tracks. “HIMMLER PROGRAM KILLS POLISH JEWS,” a headline announced.  The sub-headline added: “Slaughter of 250,000 in Plan to Wipe Out Half in Country This Year Is Reported.” An additional sub-headline read: “Officials of Poland Publish Data-Dr. Wise Gets Check Here by State Department.”

The article reported that at the instruction of Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler, Jews throughout Poland were being rounded up and taken away in sealed train cars, allegedly to be “settled” somewhere to the east. “Wherever the trains arrive, half the people are dead,” according to a report released by the Polish government-in-exile and quoted by the Times. “Those surviving are sent to special camps at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor, in Southeastern Poland. Once there, the so-called settlers are mass-murdered”. An estimated 250,000 Jews were already dead, and “half the remaining Polish Jews must be exterminated by the end of this year”, according to the report.

At the bottom of the article, the Times editors appended a six-paragraph item from Jerusalem, quoting information received by Jewish leaders there. They provided additional ghastly details: large numbers of children murdered “wholesale within a few minutes by machine-gun fire”; “concrete buildings on the former Russian frontiers used by the Germans as gas chambers in which thousands of Jews have been put to death”; and “trainloads of adults and children taken to great crematoriums at Oswiecim [i.e. Auschwitz] near Cracow”.

After that, the Times staff had tacked on another small item, five paragraphs long, headed “Wise Gets Confirmations.” Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise, the foremost leader of the American Jewish community, had announced at a press conference in Washington on November 24, 1942, that the State Department “confirmed the stories and rumors of Jewish extermination in all Hitler-ruled Europe.” About two million Jews had already been murdered, Wise said (pp. 1-3).

As longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress, World Jewish Congress, Emergency Council for Zionist Affairs, and the Jewish Institute of Religion, and as someone who enjoyed a personal and political relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt, which gave him far greater access to the White House than any other Jewish leader had, Wise was a man of immense stature and credibility. There could be no doubt as to the authenticity of the reports he was citing. It was to Wise that my father and his closest friends and classmates, Jerry Lipnick and Moshe “Buddy” Sachs, turned when they heard the news.

Certainly, Golinkin, Lipnick, and Sachs were not the only JTS students to read this ghastly news. Certainly they were not the only ones troubled by it. Yet they were the only ones whose response was to take action. There is no simple explanation as to why these three young men responded so much more energetically than their classmates. Golinkin came from a European Orthodox background-his father was the chief rabbi of Danzig-while Lipnick and Sachs came from American-born, semi-observant families. Golinkin did have a very personal connection to the situation in Europe-he grew up in Poland and succeeded against all odds in bringing his parents and two sisters to the U.S. between 1938 and 1941-but Lipnick and Sachs were American-born (pp. 7-8, 121-140). Yet the trio shared a burning determination to cry out against the Holocaust even though few of their classmates felt the same (pp. 45-46 and cf. pp. 70-71).

II) The Struggle Begins

Therefore, Golinkin, Lipnick, and Sachs proceeded to establish their own activist group, which they called the “European Committee of the Student Body of the Jewish Theological Seminary.” It was classic ad hoc campus activism: long on idealism, creativity, and dedication, short on funds and office equipment. Their initial focus was on small, consciousness-raising steps, such as the insertion of extra prayers for Europe’s Jews in the daily prayer services on campus (pp. 27-29).

Their next step was to meet with Rabbi Wise. Bringing along rabbinical students from Yeshiva College and the Jewish Institute of Religion-to emphasize that this was an issue of concern to all denominations-they came to Wise’s office on December 17, 1942, with a list of ideas for a rescue campaign and concrete suggestions as to what they could do to help (see p. 159 for the memorandum which they handed to him). Among many ideas for rescue, they proposed urging the Roosevelt administration to let Jews settle in the Virgin Islands and Alaska. Since those territories were not states, they were not subject to U.S. immigration restrictions. Wise told the students that neither climate was suitable for European Jews. Alaska was too cold, he insisted, and the Virgin Islands were too hot. Surely, Wise must have realized that with the destruction of European Jewry underway, it was highly unlikely that refugees given a chance to enter those territories would have refused (pp. 32-35). A more likely explanation for Wise’s response to the students was his loyalty to FDR. Both the Alaska and Virgin Islands proposals had already been raised, during 1938-1940, by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and other rescue advocates. President Roosevelt showed little interest in either one. Wise was unwilling to take a position that he knew the president opposed, and he was also worried that settling Jews in Alaska would cause anti-Semitism. As he had written in 1939, it “makes a wrong and hurtful impression to have it appear that Jews are taking over some part of the country for settlement” (p. 35).

The students left Wise’s office disappointed but not defeated. To their credit, they refused to take no for an answer.

III) “Retribution Is Not Enough”

Despite their youthfulness and organizational inexperience, the JTS activists grasped the strategic importance of reaching out to the non-Jewish public. They understood that as long as President Roosevelt believed Jews were the only ones concerned about the issue, he would feel little political incentive to take action, since American Jewish voters were so overwhelmingly supportive of the administration and the New Deal.  Hence, the JTS trio set their sights on their neighbors, the students of the Union Theological Seminary, located directly across Broadway from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Established by the Presbyterian Church in 1836, its faculty in the 1940s included such prominent theologians as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.

In late December 1942, Golinkin, Lipnick, and Sachs met with UTS student president J. Herbert Brautigam, Jr., and proposed holding an inter-seminary conference on the plight of European Jewry, with sessions alternating between the two campuses. Brautigam immediately assented. The JTS students handled the logistics for the event and recruited Jewish speakers, while Brautigam and his friends contacted Christian speakers and solicited the participation of other Christian seminaries. Both institutions quickly agreed to serve as co-hosts. JTS leaders undoubtedly cared deeply about the plight of their religious brethren in Europe, and they had helped German Jewish scholars and students reach the U.S., although they were not willing to ease their criteria for hiring faculty, or for students’ admission. The JTS administration did not assist the three students in their activism, but it did not interfere, either (pp. 44-45).

The “Inter-Seminary Conference of the Plight of European Jewry Today” convened on Monday, February 22, 1943. Despite the New York winter weather, 167 Christian and Jewish students took part, as did a number of faculty members. Ten metropolitan-area Protestant, Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox seminaries, and all three Jewish rabbinical seminaries, were represented. UTS student leader Brautigam pulled no punches in his opening address, charging that the Allies had so far responded to the mass murder “with a kind of moral paralysis,” and that the church had so far spoken only in “hollow tones of moral generalities” (p. 46). The time had come, he said, to start making “demands on the conscience and opinion of America” for action to save Jews from Hitler. The subsequent speakers included a number of Christian and Jewish officials of refugee aid organizations, who outlined practical rescue steps that could be taken and Varian Fry, who had already rescued 2,000 Jewish refugees including Marc Chagall and Franz Werfel from Vichy France in 1940-1941.  JTS President Louis Finkelstein was the final speaker at the closing dinner. He lamented the fact that for the “past ten years we failed to recognize the real menace of Hitler, and we did nothing at all to combat him. For this failure we should all feel a deep sense of guilt.” He said that many faiths must work together “to end political and religious isolationism” and to try to solve world problems by thinking and acting together, yet he offered no concrete suggestions as to how to rescue the Jews of Europe (p. 51).

The conference served several purposes. It brought the plight of European Jewry to the attention of prominent Christian groups and officials for the first time; it inspired several rallies at Yeshiva College and a spate of strong pro-rescue articles in the UTS and YC student newspapers; and it helped stimulate the beginnings of serious discussion in the Jewish community of the need for active rescue steps rather than passively waiting for the Allies to defeat the Nazis.

The activist trio then composed a manifesto, which was published in The Reconstructionist on March 5, 1943 (summarized on pp. 62-65; cf. pp. 176-178 for the original article). They entitled their essay “Retribution is Not Enough,” a reference to the Allied leaders’ promise to exact retribution against Nazi war criminals-a promise that represented the sum total of their response to the destruction of European Jewry. “We do not want retribution for Jews who have already died,” the JTS activists wrote. “We prefer help for those Jews who yet live.”  The Allies had failed to take “any steps beyond protest to indicate that they are really concerned” about stopping the killings, and “in failing to act speedily, they have become partners in these horrible crimes.”

The bulk of the students’ criticism, however, was aimed at American Jewry.  “We Jews who live in the staid serenity of America have failed to grasp the immensity of the tragedy,” they wrote. To convey the dimensions of the slaughter, they pointed out that “Were the entire Jewish populations of Boston, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Detroit slain, it would be little over half the number of those who have already been annihilated in Europe”.  In the face of this catastrophe, they asked bitterly:
What have the rabbis and leaders of these cities, or of New York, done to arouse themselves and their communities to the demands of the hour? What have the rabbinical bodies representing the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform groups attempted in order to impress upon their congregations the necessity for action now? What have they, or any other responsible organizations within American Jewish life, undertaken to awaken the conscience of the American people? (p. 63)
The students decried what they saw as the defeatist mood permeating the Jewish community. “Most of us, it appears, have already given up on European Jewry in our hearts,” they charged.

Others have acquiesced in their helplessness… In order to save five million human beings who have been doomed to die, we must take bold and ambitious measures… We need mass action on a nation-wide scale, mass action that involves bucking the people and the American government. But bucking injustice is our religious duty! (p. 63)

The JTS students then outlined a far-reaching campaign of political action, in two phases. One phase would be spearheaded by America’s rabbis. “Since the synagogue is the one institution in American Jewish life which can reach the greatest number of Jews, the synagogue should take the lead in this all-out effort to ameliorate the condition of European Jewry,” they wrote. The campaign would begin with the proclamation of “Aid European Jewry Now” Week, during which there would be “special services and programs” focusing on ways to pressure the Allies to rescue Europe’s Jews. One day during the week would be declared “Shivah Day,” a reference to the mourning rituals traditionally observed following the death of a close relative. Unlike the fasting and mourning of the previous December 2, “this time we should pray and mourn for a purpose-to call for concrete assistance from the United Nations [i.e. the Allies] and from our own country in particular” (p. 64).

Even after the conclusion of the week, certain practices would be instituted in Jewish religious life to help maintain communal awareness: “A uniform prayer followed by a minute of silence should be recited wherever Jews gather in numbers of ten or more-at parties, weddings, meetings, etc.,” and

a uniform prayer, such as an extra Kaddish should be recited by the entire congregation in all synagogue services… In this way we would mourn those Jews who have no one left to mourn for them, and we would always remind ourselves of our obligations to those Jews in Europe who still live (p. 64).

The students’ program of action included two points aimed specifically at mobilizing the support of non-Jews. As they had demonstrated in organizing the Inter-Seminary Conference, the JTS activists recognized that winning the support of the general public was crucial to prove to the Roosevelt administration that rescue was an issue of concern not just to American Jews but to the broader public as well. “Large interfaith meetings should be held simultaneously throughout the country,” the students proposed. “There should be one meeting in each city, and in the large cities one in each section, where uniform demands for action should be made to the United Nations and our own government.”  At the same time, an “Emergency Committee for European Jewry,” with subcommittees in each city, should be created for the purpose of utilizing “radio, press, film advertisements, etc.” to reach “every type of Gentile and nonsectarian organization” (p. 64).

All these efforts would be channeled towards asking the Roosevelt administration and its allies to take a series of rescue actions: Create temporary havens where refugees could stay until war’s end; pressure the British to open Palestine; evacuate Jews from countries likely to be invaded by the Nazis; provide food to Jews in Axis countries; encourage local populations in Europe, through leaflets and radio broadcasts, to oppose the killings; and create a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis. The “Retribution” article concluded with a heartfelt plea:

The lives of five million Jews hang in the balance. It is up to us to do everything possible to save them now. Each day’s delay means thousands of lives lost. When the final tabulation of those murdered has been published, will American Jewry be able to say: “Yadenu lo shafku et hadam hazeh” (Our hands have not shed the blood”) [Deut. 21:7]? (p. 65).

The students’ plea resonated among leaders of the Synagogue Council of America. SCA chairman (and JTS alumnus) Dr. Israel Goldstein and his colleagues, too, were discouraged by the timid response of the Jewish leadership, as well as by the endless turf wars that characterized Jewish organizational life. Inspired by the article in The Reconstructionist, as well as memoranda and phone calls they received from the JTS student group, the Synagogue Council decided to establish a Committee on Intercession and invited the JTS students to the founding meeting to help shape its agenda (pp. 67-68).

IV) The Sefira Campaign

Based on the JTS students’ proposal, the SCA decided to launch a six-week campaign of mourning, prayer, and protest to coincide with the upcoming Sefira period between Pesach and Shavuot, which had been a period of mourning since the ninth century. On April 9, 1943, 3,000 rabbis, lay-leaders and principals were sent packets of material, largely designed by the JTS students, which led them step-by-step through the process of creating an environment of awareness, mourning, and constructive action. It included a detailed outline for holding a memorial service for Hitler’s Jewish victims; a sample letter to fellow-rabbis, urging them to take part in the campaign; a sample protest letter that both rabbis and their congregants could send to political and religious leaders; sample press releases to publicize their activities; and sample resolutions to be adopted at public gatherings.

The packet included three prayers, two of them authored by Noah Golinkin. One was intended to be recited at all public gatherings, while the second was meant to be added at the end of Birkat Hamazon after every meal. The packet also included another Golinkin innovation: a black ribbon, designated as a siman avelus, or traditional mourning symbol, to be worn on one’s lapel throughout the six weeks. This represented a conscious effort to turn ancient Jewish rites into action for contemporary Jewish rights. The students also sought to shatter the business-as-usual atmosphere in the community, by creating frequent visual and verbal reminders of the plight of Europe’s Jews (pp. 68-70 and cf. pp. 181-193 for a large part of the original packet of materials).

The Sefira Campaign was launched against the backdrop of the failed Bermuda Conference, which was born of the Allies’ desire to appear to be concerned about the refugees without taking any concrete steps to alleviate the Jews’ plight. Throughout the 12 days of deliberations –April 19-30, 1943– the U.S. delegates reiterated America’s refusal to take in more refugees and the British representatives refused even to discuss Palestine. No serious rescue plans emerged from the gathering, and the administration continued to insist that “nothing can be done to save these helpless unfortunates” except to win the war (p. 73).

Since the Synagogue Council of America’s three mass-mailings reached rabbis nationwide at the same time they were reading news accounts of the Bermuda Conference, the Sefira Campaign gave them a concrete way to respond. During April and May 1943, hundreds of synagogues held rallies or memorial services, sometimes led jointly by Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Rabbis, or in conjunction with local Christian clergy. Rallies were held from New York City, Boston, Hartford, and Newport in the East; to Richmond, Charleston, Memphis, and Galveston in the South; to Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the West; and many points in between. The rallies were not only held in large metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Detroit, and Denver, but also in Tulsa, Omaha, Youngstown, St. Paul, and numerous communities across Pennsylvania. Even “Resort Jewry,” in and around Atlantic City, held memorial rallies. At the end of Sefira, on May 24, 1943, 500 Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis held a dramatic convocation at Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. These events generated significant publicity and raised public awareness of the plight of European Jewry (pp. 74-76; 141-147; and the news clippings on pp. 196-205).

V) What did the students accomplish?

By working via the resources of the Synagogue Council of America, the JTS student activists were able to reach a vast audience and influence American Jewish and Christian public opinion. They were part of the campaign by the Bergson group and others that ultimately helped force President Roosevelt to set up the War Refugees Board in January 1944 and that agency helped save 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews from certain death.
Noah Golinkin, Jerry Lipnick and Buddy Sachs taught us that basic Jewish principles are not mere slogans but must guide the lives of all Jews: “I am my brother’s keeper” (see Genesis 4:9); “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16); “All Jews are responsible for one another (Shevuot 39a); “When one delays even a moment in redeeming captives – where it is possible to hasten – he is considered as one who spills blood (Yoreh Deah252:3).

Finally, they taught us that one person, or in this case, three people, can change the world and make the world a better place.

We hope and pray that Noah and Jerry and Buddy z”l will serve as role models for all Jews – and especially young people – for generations to come (pp. 126-127).

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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