They started at the same time as Peter Bergson and his group, and their actions, along with Bergson's and the Rabbis March on Washington, led to the creation of the War Refugee Board and the rescue of 200,000 Jews.
They're the Holocaust heroes you've…
…never heard of.
By Raphael Ahren
While the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust has for decades kept Jews focused on what happened in Europe, recently some historians have turned their attention toward the efforts of a few brave souls who worked against the general trend of inaction in the United States during that period.
It can be assumed, however, that today - the day designated by the UN to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust - most American Jews will continue to overlook the relative sluggishness with which their leaders confronted the genocide.
Not so Rabbi Dr. Moses B. Sachs, who in the 1940s was among the first American Jews who tried to alert his compatriots to what was happening in Europe.
Sachs, 88, lives in Jerusalem and is the only surviving member of the "European Committee," a group of three rabbinical students at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary who organized a widely attended conference on the plight of European Jewry and published an article lamenting the apathy among American Jews and proposing ways to help the Jews in Europe.
The group is often overlooked by historians, even though their public education campaign, "played an important role in raising American Jewish awareness of what was happening to the Jews in Europe," according to Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington. Medoff, who is co-authoring a book about Sachs and his two partners - Noah Golinkin and Jerome Lipnick - said the students wanted to make awareness of the situation in Europe, "a part of every Jewish family's daily life. Special prayers, partial fast days, a black shroud draped over the synagogue ark, wearing black ribbons as mourning symbols - these were ways to make sure the Holocaust would be on everyone's mind. And that was the first, crucial step to galvanizing public protests."
Sachs, who was known by his nickname Buddy before he moved to Israel in 1973, is, "proud to have had this small part in the historical endeavor to save European Jewry," he wrote a few months ago in a paper that was presented at a conference discussing the students' activism.
Based on the pressure exerted by the students and other activists - most well known among them Peter Bergson, the Zionist emissary to the U.S. - the American government founded the War Refugee Board in 1944, which saved 200,000 Jews.
Yet, in an interview last week in his German Colony apartment, Sachs rejected the idea of being a hero.
"Let's make this a little less dramatic," he told Haaretz. "At that time, we didn't think this was about what we were going to do on behalf of world Jewry. We just thought of ourselves as students, ready to do, well, whatever you do as students. That was the set-up."
Confronting the disbelievers
Sachs served as chaplain in the U.S. and Japan during World War II and as a welfare officer in Israel's War of Independence. He suffers from a number of illnesses and sometimes has difficulties speaking. But when he talks about the "utter frustration" he and his colleagues felt when their admonitions fell on deaf ears, he speaks clearly and passionately.
Alerting the people, "was done slowly and gradually, and with a great deal of obstacles by the leaders of American Jewry," he said. "Nobody wanted to believe [that Jews were being murdered], nobody did do anything about it. We went from office to office of the major Jewish agencies of the time, including the Labor Zionists and Hadassah, and each one of them received us as if we were not be believed and not to be taken into consideration."
Already in 1942, the three students - who were later involved in the Civil Rights movement and the campaign for Soviet Jewry - contacted Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who at the time was one of America's most respected Jewish leaders. They gave him a list of proposals of what American Jews could do to save their coreligionists in Europe, but Wise wouldn't listen, according to Rabbi David Golinkin, the son of Noah.
"He basically threw them out of his office," Golinkin said last week. "He was very angry at some of the things they said because he believed that everything has to be done quietly, by talking to President Roosevelt, and not by making a lot of noise. This was very common among Jewish leaders at that time because [they were afraid] the anti-Semites in the United States would attack us. Of course these students didn't want to do it quietly, they didn't want to talk behind closed doors. They wanted to make a lot of noise."
More than revenge
In February 1943, they organized the first conference on the plight of European Jewry, in which 11 Jewish and eight Christian theological schools participated. A few days later, they published an article called "Retribution Is Not Enough" in the influental magazine, The Reconstructionist.
"We Jews who live in the staid serenity of America have failed to grasp the immensity of the tragedy which has befallen our people and this failure is perhaps the greatest part of the tragedy," they wrote.
Golinkin, who moved from the U.S. to Jerusalem in 1972 and today heads the capitals Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, explained the central idea behind the essay.
"That was a very important article," he said. "Because the basic attitude of Stephen S. Wise and many others at the time was to let the Americans win the war, and afterwards we'll set up the state of Israel and 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."
Golinkin added 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. Had they been able to get the government to act sooner, millions of Jews might have been saved. After all, the three students started protesting in November 1942, when three or four million Jews were still alive.
Looking back after 65 years, Sachs wrote in conclusion, "With the modesty appropriate for judgments of the past, we allow ourselves to confirm the opinion of yesteryear and express our feeling that American Jewish leadership failed our people in the period of the Shoah."
Rabbi David Golinkin, whose father Noah is mentioned in the above article, is a leading Conservative rabbi and posek in Israel.
Rafael Medoff of the David S. Wyman Center For Holocaust Studies wrote a short article on the JTS effort that fills in some gaps in the Ha'aretz piece:
Three Jewish Students Who Shook the World
by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Sixty years ago this month, in February 1943, an extraordinary article appeared in a leading American Jewish magazine. The article was so unusual that the editors felt compelled to insert a note at the beginning, stating that the topic "merits public discussion" even if "there may be disagreement as to some of the methods" proposed by the authors. The topic was America's response to news of the Holocaust.
In late 1942, the news of Hitler's genocide had been publicly confirmed, yet the Roosevelt administration continued to insist that nothing could be done to help Europe's Jews until the end of the war, at which point the Allies would make sure that Nazi war criminals faced appropriate "retribution." But in February 1943, three young rabbinical students at Conservative Judaism's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) took pen in hand to challenge the administration's position. Their controversial article, which appeared in 'The Reconstructionist,' was titled "Retribution Is Not Enough." Their point was that the U.S. should do much more than merely mete out postwar retribution to war criminals--ways had to be found to rescue Jews immediately.
The article also decried what the authors regarded as the apathy of the mainstream Jewish leadership: "What have the rabbis and leaders ... done to arouse themselves and their communities to the demands of the hour?," the article asked. "What have they undertaken to awaken the conscience of the American people?"
Shaken by reports of Nazi atrocities, the trio had established their own student action committee to publicize the news from Europe and prod Jewish leaders to adopt a more activist approach. In December 1942, they recruited rabbinical students from Reform and Orthodox seminaries to join them in a delegation that met with Dr. Stephen Wise, the most prominent American Jewish leader of that era. Wise was not receptive to their suggestions, such as calling for increased Jewish refugee immigration to the United States. He feared such steps might stimulate antisemitism. The students left Wise's office disappointed, yet they were determined to take action even without the Jewish leadership's approval.
In early 1943, the JTS students, together with their Reform and Orthodox colleagues, organized an extraordinary Jewish-Christian inter-seminary conference to raise public consciousness about the Holocaust. Hundreds of students and faculty attended, with sessions alternating between the Jewish Theological Seminary and its Protestant counterpart, the nearby Union Theological Seminary. The speakers and panel participants included prominent Jewish and Christian leaders and an array of refugee and relief experts, among them the heroic Varian Fry, who during 1940 had defied the State Department and personally rescued refugees trapped in Vichy France. (A Showtime movie about Fry's efforts, 'Varian's War', produced by Barbra Streisand and starring William Hurt, debuted last year with a screening at the White House.)
In the weeks following the conference, the leaders of the JTS student group --Noah Golinkin, Jerome Lipnick, and Moshe "Buddy" Sachs--undertook a campaign of calls and letters to students, Jewish leaders, and the media.
Their efforts soon bore fruit. Prodded by the JTS students, the Synagogue Council of America --the umbrella group for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues--established a Committee for Emergency Intercession to publicize the European catastrophe. At the students' suggestion, the new Committee announced a seven-week publicity campaign to coincide with the traditional period of semi-mourning between Pesach and Shavuot. Synagogues throughout the country adopted the Committee's proposals to recite special prayers for European Jewry; limit their "occasions of amusement"; observe partial fast days and moments of silence; write letters to political officials and Christian religious leaders; and hold memorial protest rallies in which congregants wore black armbands that were designed by Noah Golinkin--three decades before Vietnam War protesters would adopt a similar badge of mourning.
The memorial rallies, which took place on May 2, 1943, were in many instances jointly led by Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis--an uncommon display of unity. Equally significant, the Federal Council of Churches (whose Foreign Secretary had addressed the students' inter-seminary conference earlier that year) agreed to organize memorial assemblies at churches in numerous cities on the same day. Many of the assemblies featured speeches by both rabbis and Christian clergymen, as well as prominent political figures. The gatherings received significant coverage in the newspapers and on radio. This important Jewish-Christian alliance helped raise American public consciousness about the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, and increased the interest of congress and the media in the possibility of rescuing Jews from Hitler--which, in turn, increased the pressure on the White House to intervene.
At a time when the prevailing assumption was that nobody cared and nothing could be done to save Jews from Hitler, three college students had helped mobilize Christian sympathy for Hitler's victims and had convinced a major Jewish organization to undertake a nationwide campaign to raise public consciousness about the Holocaust.
Moreover, the students had done so despite great personal risk. As rabbinical students, they were being groomed for pulpits in synagogues around the country. By publicly challenging the policies of the Jewish leadership, they could have endangered the communal and professional connections they would need to as they launched their careers. The fact that this did not deter them is testimony to both their idealism and their courage.
For those of us raised on the idea that Bergson was Orthodox (false) and that only Orthodox Jews did anything to try to stop the Holocaust (false), another sacred cow has been gored.