A Student Who Cried Out Against the Shoah

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

Historians who write about American Jewry’s response to the Holocaust often quote the speeches or writings of prominent Jewish leaders or Jewish advisers to President Franklin Roosevelt. But one of the most remarkable documents from the period was written by three rabbinical students in a small Jewish monthly magazine in early 1943.

“What have the rabbis and leaders … done to arouse themselves and their communities to the demands of the hour?,” the students wrote in the pages of The Reconstructionist. “What have they … undertaken to awaken the conscience of the American people? … We Jews who live in the staid serenity of American 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.”

Buddy Sachs, who passed away in Jerusalem on August 1, coauthored that bold challenge to U.S. Jewry’s elders, along with two fellow-students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Noah Golinkin and Jerry Lipnick. It was the opening salvo in a little-known campaign by Jewish student activists to reshape American Jewry’s response to the Nazi genocide.

Moshe Bertram Sachs, known since childhood as “Buddy,” was born in Baltimore in 1920. Active in the Labor Zionist youth movement Habonim-Gordonia, Sachs studied at Baltimore Hebrew College and graduated from the University of Maryland, before moving to New York City in 1941 to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary.

There Sachs was assigned to share a dormitory room with Rabbi Max Gruenewald, one of a number of German refugee rabbis housed at JTS during the 1940s. Gruenewald, formerly president of the Jewish community of Mannheim, worked on refugee issues for the World Jewish Congress. Each evening, he would return to campus and tell his young roommate the latest horrifying news of Nazi atrocities.

Sachs, Golinkin, and Lipnick decided to establish the “European Committee of the Student Body of the Jewish Theological Seminary.” The name may not have been particularly catchy, but the idea was inspired: to stir their fellow-students to action on behalf of Europe’s Jews. Small steps, such as adding passages to the morning prayer services, soon gave way to more assertive action.

In December 1942, after the Allies publicly verified that the “systematic annihilation” of the Jews was underway, the boys organized a delegation of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbinical students to meet with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent leader of American Jewry. The youths offered to organize public demonstrations to press the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jewish refugees. Wise, a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt, opposed putting public pressure on the president.

“If Rabbi Wise had proposed some other way to get the Jews rescued, we would have been satisfied,” Sachs told me when I met him in Jerusalem earlier this summer. “But instead his position was basically to sit and be patient. We couldn’t be patient at a time like that.”

In February 1943, the students organized an unprecedented Jewish-Christian conference on the plight of Europe’s Jews. Students and faculty from nine Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish seminaries took part. Sessions alternating between JTS and the nearby Union Theological Seminary. The speakers included prominent Jewish and Christian leaders and an array of refugee and relief experts. One was Varian Fry, who in 194-41 had defied the State Department and rescued 2,000 refugees trapped in Vichy France.

The JTS students next took aim at the Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella group for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues. They persuaded the SCA to launch a six-week nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the Holocaust, coinciding with the traditional period of semi-mourning between Pesach and Shavuot. The council prevailed upon synagogues to adopt special prayers of Europe’s Jews –some authored by the JTS students– as well observe partial fast days, limit “occasions of amusement,” hold prayer rallies, and write letters to political leaders.

These efforts played an important part in making the plight of European Jewry an issue of greater concern both to the American Jewish community and the broader American public.

The Synagogue Council’s campaign also generated a series of prayer rallies at synagogues and churches from coast to coast in the spring of 1943, which received significant media coverage and helped raise American public awareness about the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry.

Enlisting as a chaplain in the United States army in 1945, he was stationed for a time in the Philippines, where he was able to assist Jewish refugees who had fled there from the Nazis. (In defiance of the State Department, the U.S. High Commissioner for the Philippines, Paul McNulty, sheltered some 2,000 European Jews on the eve of the Holocaust.)

A devoted Zionist, Sachs and his wife Frances traveled to British Mandatory Palestine in 1947, where he enrolled in a Hebrew University doctoral program in Jewish thought with Martin Buber. At the same time, he and Frances secretly enlisted as intelligence agents in the Hagana. During the 1948 siege of Jerusalem, Sachs, still officially on duty as a U.S. army chaplain, organized a Passover seder for American servicemen in Talpiot, led by future Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon. Sachs jokingly told the participants that stealing the afikomen “would be punishable by court martial.”

Returning to the United States in 1949, Sachs held several rabbinical positions in Illinois before settling in as the spiritual leader of the St. Louis Park congregation, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from 1956 to 1974. An innovative program he designed for teenagers to teach younger children how to read from the Torah is still widely used in synagogues in Minnesota.

An activist spirit guided Sachs throughout his life In the 1960s, he traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to join the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in civil rights marches. Sachs founded the Minnesota Soviet Jewry Committee, which was instrumental in persuading U.S. Senators Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to take an active interest in the plight of Soviet Jewry.

Buddy and Frances Sachs returned to Jerusalem in 1974, where he finally completed the Ph.D. studies that had been interrupted by the War of Independence. He worked for many years in Beit Shean with juvenile delinquents, and as a private therapist. Sachs’ 1940s letters from Jerusalem were later published as a book, Life Under Siege, and transcripts of his 1970s telephone conversations with Jews in the Soviet Union were published as Brave Jews.

Principled and innovative, Moshe “Buddy” Sachs left his mark as a protester, a teacher, and a counselor. His passing is a loss not only to his three children, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren but t0 the entire Jewish world.

(Dr. Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org, and Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, are writing a book about the JTS student activists.)

As published in Ha’aretz – August 14, 2009

August 2009