Our Neighbor, An Unsung Hero of the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

To his neighbors in Columbia, Maryland, Noah Golinkin was a retired rabbi best known for the Hebrew-language literacy project that he designed for Jewish schools. Some of his colleagues also knew him as the creator of the widely-observed custom of planting yellow tulips to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But a visitor to his home would have had no idea that Noah Golinkin, who passed away last week at the age of 89, was one of the unsung handful of young activists who, during the 1940s, helped shatter the silence in America surrounding the Holocaust.

Noah Golinkin emigrated from his native Poland to the United States 1938, and enrolled as a rabbinical student in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. After the war, he served as the rabbi of the Heska Amuna synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee from 1945-1950, the Arlington Fairfax Jewish Congregation in Virginia from 1950-1965, and was named the first president of the Board of Jewish Education of Washington, D.C., a post he held from 1965-1970.

He later moved to Columbia, Maryland, where he served as rabbi of the Beth Shalom congregation. After retiring from the pulpit, Golinkin initiated a Hebrew-language education program for Jewish private schools known as the Hebrew Literacy Project, and authored several textbooks designed to facilitate the quick learning of the language. He was also the originator, in 1989, of the custom, observed by a number of synagogues and Jewish organizations, to plant yellow tulips on Holocaust Remembrance Day as a reminder of the yellow star that Jews were forced by the Nazis to wear on their clothing.

Many years ago, when I was undertaking the research for my first book, The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust, I came across a fascinating essay that appeared in a small Jewish periodical in early 1943. 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 article was titled “Retribution is Not Enough”; 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 the Jewish Theological Seminary –Noah Golinkin, Jerome Lipnick, and Moshe “Buddy” Sachs– took pen in hand to challenge the administration’s position. Their controversial article, “Retribution Is Not Enough,” appeared in ‘The Reconstructionist’ magazine (although formally published by the organizational arm of Reconstructionist Judaism, the journal has always served as a forum for discussing a wide range of issues). The students’ 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?”

In my book (published in 1987), I mentioned the students’ article, but did not explore the topic further. Several years ago, while combing through the dusty files of correspondence, memoranda newspaper clippings, and other documents I had used for The Deafening Silence, I came across “Retribution Is Not Enough.”

Re-reading the essay, it struck me that these three students had done something that was unusually courageous. By publicly challenging the policies of the most revered and experienced leaders in their community, they had risked their own careers. They were rabbinical students, being groomed for pulpits in synagogues around the country. Their article might easily have endangered the communal and professional connections they would need as they launched their careers. But that did not deter them. This, I decided, was something worth investigating.

Noah Golinkin, it turned out, was living in nearby Columbia. Over the course of the next year, through many long conversations with Rabbi Golinkin and many of his former classmates, as well as visits to numerous archives in search of corroborating documents, I uncovered an extraordinary episode whose importance extended far beyond the article that Jerry, Buddy and Noah had written in 1943. The article, it turned out, was just one of a series of activities they had undertaken.

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 aftermath of the conference, Golinkin and his fellow-students sent a memorandum to various Jewish leaders, outlining their ideas for a more activist response to the news from Europe. Carl Alpert, editor of the Zionist Organization of America’s journal, New Palestine, was so impressed that he wrote back: “When I note the progressiveness, the imagination, and the energetic spirit displayed in your memorandum I feel that perhaps it would not be such a bad idea if all leaders of American Jewry were to abdicate and a committee of students from the respective Rabbinical seminaries were to take over for a period of six months.”

Golinkin’s group also initiated a series of face-to-face meetings with American Jewish leaders to press them to take a more activist approach to raising public awareness of the Holocaust, pointing to the success of their interfaith conference as evidence that many Christians would support a campaign to press FDR for action.

The students had their greatest impact on the Synagogue Council of America, the national umbrella group for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues. Shortly after meeting with the Students Committee, and just five days after “Retribution Is Not Enough” was published, the Synagogue Council announced the establishment of an emergency committee to raise Jewish and Christian consciousness about the Nazi genocide.

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.

The Bergson group helped raise public consciousness about the Holocaust by taking out newspaper ads and organizing public rallies. The JTS students did it, on a smaller scale, by prodding the Jewish leadership to mobilize synagogues and churches.

Alerting the public 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. And in early 1944, after a year of mounting pressure and protests –culminating in Bergson-instigated Congressional hearings on the rescue issue– President Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board. During the final eighteen months of the war, the Board rescued over 200,000 Jews from Hitler. (Among other things, it sponsored the rescue activities of Raoul Wallenberg.)

At a time when the prevailing assumption was that nobody cared and nothing could be done, three college students helped mobilize Christian sympathy for Hitler’s victims and convinced a major Jewish organization to undertake a national campaign to help shatter the silence surrounding the Holocaust. Few in number but persistent and imaginative, the students demonstrated that it was possible, even without funds, offices, or a professional staff, to make a difference.

Noah Golinkin and his colleagues always insisted that their efforts were nothing more than a drop in the bucket. They were too modest. Of course, given the enormity of the Holocaust, nobody could have expected three young students to shake the world. And yet, they did shake the Jewish world, and that was the first crucial step in the process of shaking America’s conscience.

February 2003