A study in almost-universal apathy

The response of American college students to the Holocaust was not really much different from the response of US society at large.

Rabbis in Washington 1943 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbis in Washington 1943 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The major political protest movements in recent decades typically involved a large component of college students.
Whether is was the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the US, or the international struggle for Soviet Jewry, or local protest groups from Peace Now to Im Tirtzu, students often have been the first to mount the barricades.
As someone who has researched America’s response to the Holocaust, I have often wondered if there was any effort by college students in the 1940s to protest against the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. When confronted by the most horrific human tragedy of the 20th century, did students rise to the occasion? The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust, by Rafael Medoff and David Golinkin, answers that question.
The story opens in late 1942, in the plush offices of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress and the American Zionist movement. A group of Conservative, Orthodox and Reform rabbinical students, shocked by the news of the Nazi genocide, turned to Wise to discuss what US Jews could do to aid European Jewry. The delegation, headed by Noah Golinkin, Jerry Lipnick and Buddy Sachs of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), did not get the reception they expected.
Alaska had plenty of room for refugees, the students pointed out. “Too cold,” Wise replied. How about a different US territory, such as the Virgin Islands? “Too hot,” Wise insisted. The real problem, Medoff and Golinkin make clear, was that president Franklin Roosevelt opposed taking in more Jewish refugees, and Wise was deeply loyal to FDR.
The students offered to organize a protest movement on college campuses.
While it was true that many students had been drafted and many others were politically apathetic, there were some college students, especially in the New York area, who would have been eager to join the kind of movement the rabbinical students had in mind. At City College, for example, there were Betar members, including young Moshe Arens; there were young Labor Zionists, known as Habonim; and there were religious Zionist students involved with Hashomer Hadati.
These groups’ publications brimmed with criticism of the response of the Allies (and the Jewish leadership) to the Holocaust. Wise was not interested in creating a protest movement that he might not be able to control.
To their credit, the JTS students refused to take no for an answer. Golinkin, Lipnick and Sachs organized their own group, called the European Committee of the JTS Student Body. Across the street, at the neighboring Union Theological Seminary, which trained Protestant clergy, they found an eager partner in student president J. Herbert Brautigam, Jr.
At a time when Jews and Christians alike were paying relatively little attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews, this little ecumenical group of seminarians put together a remarkable Jewish- Christian conference about the Holocaust, with alternating sessions at their two seminaries. For the first time, students of both faiths learned in detail about the mass killings, and listened to religious leaders and refugee advocates outline specific ideas for US intervention.
Next the students persuaded the Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella group for synagogues of all denominations, to initiate a nationwide campaign for European Jewry. Timed to coincide with the weeks of semi-mourning (sefira) between Pessah and Shavuot, the campaign mobilized synagogues to hold memorial services, letter-writing campaigns, partial fast days and other steps.
A simultaneous effort to rally America’s churches, however, raised little interest in Nazi genocide. Some mainstream Christian publications even questioned whether the persecution of the Jews was really as severe as Jewish groups claimed. Only the two smallest Protestant denominations, the Quakers and the Unitarians, took real steps to aid Jewish refugees.
The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust is a compelling book. Dr. Medoff, a leading historian of America’s response to the Holocaust, and Rabbi Golinkin, a noted Judaic scholar and son of Noah Golinkin, have done a superb job. What their thorough research and keen analysis show is that the response of American college students to the Holocaust was not really much different from the response of US society at large. Most Americans turned away; so did most students.
But at least there were a few who stood up and tried to make a difference, and one may hope that today’s students will learn from their example so that this generation’s response to genocide will be different from that of its predecessors. The fact that The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust reprints dozens of original documents from the period will make it especially valuable for students and hopefully will encourage teachers to make use of this fine volume.
The writer is a professor of American History at Bar-Ilan University.