by Rafael Medoff
On the morning of September 8, 1947 –less than a week before Rosh Hashana– Londoners awoke to the startling news that a group of Jewish militants had been arrested in Paris as they prepared to fly a small plane over England’s capital and shower it with leaflets demanding a Jewish state in Palestine. The conspirators were headed by a very unorthodox Orthodox rabbi from Boston, by the name of Baruch Korff.
* * *
A descendant of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, Korff was the son of a rabbi and was groomed to follow in his footsteps. But as a child growing up in the Soviet Ukraine, he saw his mother murdered in a pogrom. That trauma impressed upon the youngster the perils of Jewish statelessness and nurtured in him a determination to actively fight for Jewish rights.
After receiving rabbinical ordination in Poland in 1936, Korff became the spiritual leader of a small congregation near Boston. News of the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews galvanized Korff to leave his pulpit in 1943 and join the Bergson Group, political activists who used newspaper ads, rallies, and lobbying to press for the rescue of Jewish refugees. Energetic and devoted, Korff quickly rose to become one of the Bergsonites’ top lobbyists in Washington. He also worked closely with the Va’ad ha-Hatzala, an Orthodox rescue group.
The strong-willed Korff did not always enjoy the smoothest of relations with his political bedfellows. In 1945, as World War II drew to a close, he split from the Bergson Group to establish his own organization, the Political Action Committee for Palestine. Echoing Bergson’s Holocaust-era tactics, Korff organized dramatic protests urging Jewish refugee immigration to postwar Palestine, including a “Zion March” by hundreds of rabbis to the White House and a political pageant featuring prominent actors such as Bela Lugosi.
After the S.S. Exodus was prevented from reaching Palestine and forced to return to Germany in the summer of 1947, Korff announced that his Political Action Committee would undertake an “Exodus by Air” that would parachute thousands of Holocaust survivors into Palestine. Full-page ads in New York City newspapers depicted a young parachutist cradling a Torah scroll in one arm as he made his jump.
It’s not clear whether there really was a parachuting plan, or if the publicity was just a cover for what happened next. Korff flew to Paris in August 1947 for the purpose, he said, of purchasing parachutes and assembling airplane crews. Instead, he became involved in a plan to bombard London with leaflets demanding Jewish independence. Korff later said the plan was developed together with members of the Stern Group, the Palestine Jewish underground faction that had broken away from Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi.
The idea was to shock the British public and intensify their sense that the British presence in Palestine was becoming more trouble than it was worth. As it turned out, Korff and his cohorts managed to achieve that aim without ever setting foot in the plane. They were arrested at the Toussus le Noble airport, near Versailles, after one member of their group turned out to be a police informant. A few days later, the French police interrogators showed Korff a front page New York Times article about his arrest, which reported that the revelation of the plot “shocked Britons deeply.” Korff was more than a little pleased to read that.
True to his p.r. instincts, Korff immediately announced a hunger strike for his freedom. Within days, the New York Times was reporting that the imprisoned rabbi was suffering from “an ailing heart” and was “weakening.” The publicity contributed to the political pressure on the French authorities to let him go. But political considerations aside, Korff faced a serious legal problem: he had rented the airplane, he had been caught red-handed with the leaflets, and four of his co-conspirators had been rounded up elsewhere in the city after being fingered by the informant.
Under ordinary circumstances, five suspects awaiting interrogation would not be allowed contact with one another. But Rosh Hashana arrived before the questioning began, and Rabbi Korff insisted on his right, as a clergyman, to lead the others in prayer in the prison’s chapel. Worried they would appear to be mistreating an American rabbi on his High Holiday, the French authorities reluctantly acceded.
In the guise of conducting services, Korff stepped to the front of the chapel and, to the tune of a traditional Rosh Hashana melody, informed his colleagues (in Hebrew): “Move your lips as you would in prayer. Do not display any emotion other than reverence, turn the pages of your prayer book, following my lead. When I bend, you bend with me.”
Korff then proceeded to lecture the “worshippers” on how to answer the questions posed by the French police detectives. Each of the five took a turn on the podium, swaying piously while offering suggestions as to how to coordinate their stories. “For once,” the rabbi later joked, “my whole congregation welcomed the interminable length of the services.”
At one point, Korff managed to persuade the guards to temporarily wait outside the chapel, on the grounds that certain prayers could not be recited if “non-believers” were present. That gave him and his co-conspirators the ability to speak even more freely.
When the interrogations ensued two days later, the police detectives were stymied by the suspects’ perfectly choreographed answers. Suddenly they all had useful alibis and a ready explanation for the incriminating leaflets. With their legal case in shambles and facing embarrassing questions from the American news media over the hunger-striking rabbi, the French authorities decided to release the suspects without charges. The British government’s protests were to no avail.
Korff arrived at Boston’s South Station train terminal on December 3, where, the Boston Globe reported, the “pallid and weary” activist was welcomed by “a motorcade of 25 autos” and “greeted by his elderly father, Grand Rabbi Jacob I. Korff. The young clergyman clasped the older man to him and both fought to control their emotions.”
But if the elder Rabbi Korff thought the long weeks in French prison had convinced Baruch to take even a short break from political activism, he was mistaken. Within minutes of his arrival at the train station, the young firebrand was telling reporters of plans to create an armed brigade of young American volunteers to fight for a Jewish state in Palestine. The British had not heard the last of Baruch Korff.