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.