Not long thereafter, my father began his many years of illustrious volunteer activity as the representative of the Agudas Israel World Organization at the United Nations. His first addresses to agencies of the UN dealt with the situation of Jewish refugees and with the obligation of the world to return Jewish orphans to Jewish homes.
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to publish the following guest editorial by the noted attorney Nathan Lewin on the 11th yahrzeit of his father, Dr. Isaac Lewin, zt”l. Dr. Lewin provided much of the intellectual heft to hatzalah efforts during World War II and thereafter as well as to the reconstruction of Jewish life both in Europe and the United States. An accomplished historian and Torah scholar, his countless articles and historical works provided an important framework for much of the rebuilding of the shattered Jewish nation.
In the summer of 1946 we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. I was ten years old and I slept on a convertible sofa in our living room. My childhood memories of the war years were of routinely falling asleep to the clickety-clack of the Hebrew typewriter that my father banged at with two index fingers at our dining table, churning out the Yiddish articles that he wrote for the Morgen Journal, the daily newspaper read by Orthodox Jews in New York, and for the weekly Amerikaner.
The war had ended the previous year, and it was only then that my father learned of the gruesome murder in Lemberg of his father, the great Reisher Rav, Rabbi Aharon Lewin, zt”l, by Ukrainian thugs in the summer of 1941. The hope that his father was still alive somewhere in Europe stayed with us through the war. During the war, my father spent day and night working on hatzala efforts and trying to waken Jews in the United States to the terrible destruction that was being perpetrated in Europe. His articles in the Morgen Journal and in other Yiddish newspapers (some of which he collected in a volume titled Churban Eiropa) were the first to publicize the reports coming from Europe describing mass murders of Polish Jews and to call on the American Jewish community to rise in protest.
Calls would come into the house at all hours from rabbis and other Orthodox leaders who were engaged in the United States and abroad in rescue efforts. Although my parents were living off the meager salary he drew for his Yiddish articles and for teaching some courses in Jewish history at Yeshiva University (which, in those days, was frequently unable to meet its payroll), my father spared no time or effort when his help was requested for volunteer activity on behalf of the kahal.
And suddenly, in the summer of 1946, when the academic year had its vacation, he was asked to go off to Europe for three months to help in the rehabilitation of the Shearit Ha-Pleta – the survivors of what was not yet called the Shoah. I remember how handsome my mother thought he looked in the military-like uniform of the UNRRA – the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration – under whose auspices he and Cincinnati’s Rabbi Eliezer Silver, zt”l, traveled through European areas under Western control including Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia to meet with and assist the organizations that were working to rehabilitate the Jewish survivors.
We missed him, but were proud to get accounts of his accomplishments during that trip. He joined with Rabbi Silver in high-level meetings that restored Jewish religious observances, such as the practice of shechitah, in post-war Europe, and he reported in his Yiddish articles on Rabbi Silver’s inspirational addresses to gatherings of survivors and to European political leaders.
The articles he sent back for publication during his trip and those he wrote after his return told of continued suffering, neglect, and outright persecution of the Jews. (Many of the articles were collected in a volume titled Nochen Churban.) While the civilized world was exulting over its military victory over Hitler and Japan, little attention was being paid to the Jewish survivors of history’s most terrible campaign of organized genocide.
An article my father wrote in Prague on July 30, 1946, that appeared in the Morgen Journal of August 9, reported on two weeks in Austria and Czechoslovakia, when he witnessed thousands of Jews streaming across the borders from Poland, as if fleeing with all their belongings in small pekalech. The scene reminded him of September 1939, when Jews were escaping from Poland without knowing where they were headed.
In an article he published after his return he wrote that the few months he had spent in Europe “were the most difficult in his life.” (This coming from an important public figure in Poland who had been uprooted by the Nazi invasion, who had smuggled across the border into Lithuania, who had endured two weeks’ travel on the trans-Siberian railroad to get to Vladivostok, and who then had to travel to Japan before finding refuge in the United States.)
It became clear to him, he said, that even after the end of the war, the remnants of European Jewry were in danger of further destruction. In a meeting with American General Mark Clark in Vienna, he told the general that, for these survivors, the war had not ended, and the general agreed. And my father added: “Everyone who rides the trains in Austria, for example, and sees engines with Jews in freight-cars being transported to Germany, everyone who sees their condition when they arrive in Vienna, Linz, Salzburg, or Munich, and everyone who visits the refugee camps in which they must live is alarmed and must ask himself: What in the world is going on? Is the war truly over?”
He concluded this article with the statement that “it is now my duty to alert the Jewish world to the condition of the Jews in Austria. It is an obligation that we have to the Jews who are there and to ourselves.”