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Book Review: The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust

A review by Prof. Baila Shagel, Purchase College-State University of New York ~ 

The three students featured in “The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust” by Rafael Medoff and David Golinkin (published by Schechter Inst., Wyman Inst., and Jewish Theological Seminary; New York and Jerusalem, 2010) are among the relatively few American Jews who relentlessly drew attention to the Holocaust while war raged in Europe.

"The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust" by Rafael Medoff and David Golinkin

Telling their story are two authors driven by disparate motives. For Prof. Golinkin, the book is inescapably personal. His father was one of three students at the Jewish Theological Seminary who refused to remain silent in the face of the slaughter of European Jewry. For Dr. Medoff, the book is a contribution to his extensive oeuvre on American and American Jewish response to the Holocaust. Within the field he draws attention to people who resisted governmental policy during World War II. Dissatisfied with the U.S. government’s insistence that the only way to save Jews was to win the war, they insisted upon immediate measures designed to rescue the surviving remnant. They exerted every effort to awaken the consciousness of the Jewish plight within American Jewry and the American populace at large.
Dissatisfied with the absence of a public response to confirmed reports of a plan to murder European Jewry, Noah Golinkin, Bertam (Buddy) Sachs, and Jerry Lipnick, students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, devised strategies to draw attention to the catastrophe and to find concrete means of rescue. Rebuffed by the Jewish establishment, the JTS students contacted counterparts in rabbinic programs at the Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform) and Yeshiva College (Orthodox).  All agreed that the U.S. government’s promise of postwar retribution was preposterous in the face of Nazi resolve to annihilate European Jewry as quickly as possible.  Aware of the value of non-Jewish allies, they recruited young people who attended ten Christian seminaries. Together they pursued two objectives: protest and rescue.
Representatives of the thirteen institutions formed an Inter-Seminary Conference, held on Feb 22, 1943 at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the neighboring Protestant Union Theological Seminary. Some 200 attendees passed resolutions to end U.S. restrictions for refugees, negotiate with Germans to release Jewish (and political) prisoners, send aid to starving civilians, and open Palestine to Jewish immigration.
The three JTS students composed a joint article for The Reconstructionist, condemning U.S. policy: “We do not want retribution for Jews who have already died. We prefer help for those Jews who yet live.” The article suggested a course of communal action based upon the proposals of the Inter-Seminary Conference. It goaded to action the Synagogue Council of America, which represented all three religious streams in Judaism.   In the spring of 1943 the organization set up a six week mourning campaign. There were religious services featuring special memorial prayers and bans on festive activities celebrating family milestones.
When pressures on the British and American governments led to the Bermuda Conference in April, 1943, and when that conference proved deliberately ineffectual, many sympathizers protested, at first to no avail. Only in the last week of that year did the tide turn. Roosevelt’s Jewish friend Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. exposed the U.S. State Department’s policy in the aptly named “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.”  The obstructionism of State Department official Breckenridge Long uncovered, a War Refugee Board was formed in 1944. It managed to save some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews.
An epilogue follows the postwar careers of the three rabbinic students. All assumed Conservative pulpits; all engaged in the black civil rights movement of the 1960s as well as other liberal causes. But there is a greater discrepancy between reports of the incentives that drove their activities. David Golinkin recounts his father’s early life in detail; his birth to a talmid hakham and active Zionist, his prewar life in antisemitic Poland and Lithuania, and his Zionist activities at JTS.   The prewar activities of Buddy Sachs and Jerry Lipnick, in particular, their early Zionist affiliations are much sketchier.  Despite this omission, “The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust” is a worthy addition to Medoff’s library of books and articles on a painful episode in the annals of American Jewry, as well as a poignant token of a son’s high regard for his courageous father.

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