FDR, Bergson and the Holocaust–on stage

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

IN DIALOGUE: Rafael Medoff interviews David Golinkin

Rafael Medoff: In the 1940s, your father and grandfather were involved in protests against the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of European Jewry. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost Jewish leader of that era, opposed those protests. Now you’re playing the role of Wise in The Accomplices. Is that just ironic, or is it poetic justice?

David Golinkin: It is very ironic, because my father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin, had an unforgettable meeting with Rabbi Wise. After the news that over two million Jews had been murdered by the Nazis was confirmed by the Allies in November 1942, my father and two of his fellow rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary organized a delegation of rabbinical students – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – to meet with Wise a few weeks later. They pleaded with him to launch a public campaign to press the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews. And they offered to lead such a campaign on college campuses.

Wise turned them down cold. He insisted that a bunch of students couldn’t possibly know better than he, a venerated Jewish leader, how to respond to the Holocaust. When I was first told that I was chosen to play Wise in The Accomplices, I was a little taken aback, but I think the knowledge of my father’s encounter with Wise has actually given me more insight into Wise’s character and helped me prepare for the role.

Medoff: Your grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Golinkin, took part in the Bergson Group’s march by 400 rabbis to the White House in October 1943. How did you feel when you learned that Wise and other Jewish leaders opposed the march and urged president Roosevelt not to meet with the marchers?

Golinkin: It was painful to discover that Jewish leaders urged president Roosevelt to ignore the rabbis. In the play, Rabbi Wise and Samuel Rosenman, a senior adviser to Roosevelt who was very reluctant to pressure FDR on this issue, sit in the White House and complain about the fact that 400 rabbis are demonstrating outside. In real life, Rabbi Wise wrote an article condemning the march as a “stunt.” If there had been more such “stunts,” perhaps more European Jews would have been rescued.

Medoff: Last month, you were one of 400 rabbis from North America and Israel who signed a petition to Yad Vashem, urging recognition of the Bergson Group and the rabbis’ march. Are you surprised that Yad Vashem is resisting that request?

Golinkin: I have great respect for Yad Vashem. I have visited it many times, and the work it does is incredibly important. But its position on the Bergson Group just doesn’t make sense. Yad Vashem claims that it focuses on the perpetrators and the victims, not the response of America or the other Allies. But anyone who has visited the Yad Vashem museum knows they do have panels in their exhibit about the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, the failure to bomb Auschwitz, and other aspects of America’s response. If you’re going to talk about America’s abandonment of the Jews, you should also talk about those in America who protested and had an impact. I hope that the new chairman of Yad Vashem, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who is a survivor, will take a closer look at this issue.

Medoff: The 400 rabbis who marched in 1943 were all Orthodox. Yet many of the 400 rabbis who signed that recent petition were Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist. Is this a sign that Jews are more unified today than they were then?

Goinkin: Unfortunately, there are still plenty of issues that divide rabbis of different denominations, but it’s always good to find an issue where there is some degree of unity. Correcting the historical record is something that we should all be able to agree on. If only there had been such unity during the Holocaust itself!

Medoff: Your father, Noah Golinkin, was a young rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in those days. He and his classmates Jerry Lipnick and Buddy Sachs fashioned their own unique response to the news about Europe’s Jews. Why?

Golinkin: After Stephen Wise snubbed them, my father and his fellow-students felt they had no choice but to create their own activist group, called the European Committee. No budget, no staff, no office, just some 20-somethings in their dorm rooms with a rickety typewriter. They organized an amazing conference in February 1943, bringing Christian and Jewish students from 11 theological seminaries together to learn what was happening to Europe’s Jews and to discuss ways to help. My father and his friends also managed to persuade the Synagogue Council of America to launch a nationwide campaign to get synagogues to hold memorial rallies in May 1943, to insert special passages about Europe’s Jews – written by my father – in their prayers, to wear black ribbons and more.

This was all a very important part of making the Jewish public aware of what was happening and of putting rescue at the top of the Jewish community’s agenda. It’s really remarkable to think that a handful of college students could make that happen.

Medoff: Your father had just recently escaped from the Nazis and reached America. Usually one thinks of immigrants as being afraid to “make waves” in their new country. What made your father different?

Golinkin: He only arrived in the US in 1938. Through intensive lobbying in Congress, he managed to get his parents out in 1939 and his sisters out in 1942. This proved to him that lobbying did work. The second reason was simply his personality – he was a doer. If he saw a problem, he tried to solve it. When he saw the Jewish leaders staying quiet, he prodded them to act before it would be too late.

Medoff: The controversy over president Roosevelt and the Holocaust continues to provoke debate, more than 60 years after the fact. Now it’s coming to the Jerusalem stage. How do you think Israelis will respond to it?

Golinkin: Israelis care deeply about these issues, and they should. The Allies’ response to the Holocaust has affected so many issues, from the creation of Israel, to the nature of America-Israel relations, to the influence of American Jews on US foreign policy. Also, many Israelis will naturally see Peter Bergson [Hillel Kook] as “one of ours” – he and the other leaders of the Bergson Group came to America from Mandatory Palestine, and after their work was done, they went back to Eretz Yisrael. Bergson and two of his colleagues even served in the first Knesset. The story of the Bergson Group is not only part of American Jewish history, it’s a very important part of Israeli and Zionist history as well.

Medoff: Is a play the right forum for learning about history?

Golinkin: A play is not meant to be 100 percent accurate. For example, in The Accomplices, Rabbi Wise “watches” the pageant We Shall Never Die put on by Bergson and his colleagues, and in another scene Bergson meets with FDR. These events never actually happened, but the play is very valuable because it makes history come alive. History can be learned from art, music or a play, just as it can be learned from textbooks. Think about the number of people who know the story of Oskar Schindler from the movie versus the number who read the book on which the movie was based.

Medoff: What lessons should today’s generation learn from the experiences of your father, grandfather and the other activists of the 1940s?

Golinkin: That silence is never the answer to injustice. When the Jewish people and other innocent peoples, such as those in Darfur, are threatened or attacked, we must speak out.

The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Rabbi Dr. Golinkin is president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. The Accomplices will be performed at the Center Stage Theater in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood, from April 20-26. For tickets, call (02) 561-9165, extension 5 or e-mail cst@themerkaz.org.

April 2009