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The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust by Rafael Medoff, David Golinkin (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 3, Spring 2013
pp. 92-94 | 10.1353/coj.2013.0033

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The three students featured in this book are among the relatively few American Jews who relentlessly drew attention to the Holocaust while war raged in Europe. Telling their story are two authors driven by disparate motives. For Golinkin the book is inescapably personal. David Golinkin’s 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 Medoff the book was a contribution to an extensive oeuvre on 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 American 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.

Medoff has his heroes and his villains. In previous books and articles he shined a light upon the daring and controversial activities of Peter Bergson, and he repeats some of them here. In contrast to this heroic figure, he paints a sorry picture of the quarrelsome and ineffective Jewish establishment. Bergson had to contend with the villain of this book, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress, who is portrayed as Roosevelt’s cat’s paw. To him and other Jewish leaders, the Bergson group was a distasteful agent of the Revisionist Zionists, whom they tarred with the brush of fascism. They were horrified at the group’s confrontational style, manifest in raucous rallies and in-your-face ads in the general press.1

Medoff and Golinkin position Noah Golinkin, Bertram (Buddy) Sachs, and Jerry Lipnick, students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in the heroic category. Dissatisfied with the absence of a public response to confirmed reports of the murder of European Jewry, these three 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 and Yeshiva College. All agreed that the United States government’s promise of postwar retribution was preposterous in the face of Nazi resolve to annihilate European Jewry. 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 February 22, 1943 at JTS and UTS. Some 200 attendees passed resolutions to end U.S. restrictions for refugees, to negotiate with Germans to release Jewish (and political) prisoners, to send aid to starving civilians, and to 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 the 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 of 1943, and when that conference proved deliberately ineffectual, many sympathizers protested, but to no avail. Only in the last week of that year did the tide turn. Roosevelt’s 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.” With 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...


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