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My father, Dr. Isaac Lewin, z”l, was 37 years old in January 1943 when B’nai B’rith held a conference in Pittsburgh to which it invited 34 national Jewish organizations. It announced that the purpose of the meeting was “to consider what steps should be taken to bring about some agreement on the part of the American Jewish community with respect to the post-war status of Jews and the upbuilding of a Jewish Palestine.”
Isaac Lewin had arrived in the United States less than two years earlier and, despite being amazingly proficient with foreign languages, was struggling to learn English. In Poland, before September 1939, he had written articles in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and he could converse comfortably in German and French, but the English language was a daunting challenge.
My father undertook to speak at that national meeting in January 1943. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein reports in Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? (p. 133): “The letter inviting thirty-four organizations to the Pittsburgh meeting made no mention of rescuing European Jews or alleviating their plight. These matters were not on the agenda of the preliminary meeting, nor were they touched upon in any of the first twenty-three speeches delivered at the meeting. It remained for Isaac Lewin, representing Agudat Israel of America but speaking also in behalf of Polish Jewry, to urge that ‘within two weeks another conference [be called] for the purpose of finding steps to save Jews not only in Poland but in the whole of Europe.’”
In an emotional appeal to the gathering, my father said that it was meaningless to speak of the “post-war status of Jewry” without first ensuring “that there will be Jews left in Europe after the war.” He alone reminded the delegates whose priority was post-war Zionism that their efforts should be directed “not alone to save the object [that is, the Jewish homeland], but also the subject: the people who will benefit from all these rights after the war and who will be able to help build the Land of Israel.”
Rabbi Lookstein writes (p. 134) that the Pittsburgh meeting produced proposals that “contained no reference to rescue or to providing immediate aid to European Jewry.” The delegates agreed only to call for action “on problems relating to the rights and status of Jews in the post-war world” and to “implementation of the rights of the Jewish people with respect to Palestine.”
My father began crying out for rescue long before the Pittsburgh conference. He supported our family after we arrived in the United States by becoming a regular columnist for the Orthodox Yiddish-language newspaper Der Morgen Journal. In a column in the newspaper’s February 6, 1942, issue, he described the suffering of Jews in the ghettos that the Nazis had established in Polish cities and asked whether American Jewry was going to allow them to perish from hunger and cold.
“It may be,” he wrote, in terms that were grimly prophetic, “that all that will be left of our brothers and sisters will be graves – and maybe not even that much.”
He sounded an alarm, pleading, on behalf of the Jews in Polish ghettoes, “Do not abandon us, do not allow us to perish.” Food, he said, could be delivered through the International Red Cross, which had volunteered to deliver food and medicines to the ghettoes. He concluded with a call to action: “First of all, let us do what is possible to save millions of innocent victims in the gehenna of the ghettoes from death by starvation. There is a way. It is not easy. It requires labor, it requires exertion. But can that be a deterrence? Nisht varten! Nisht shvaigen! Do not wait! Do not remain silent!”
Because of his mastery of Polish and the official positions he had held in the pre-war Polish government (having been elected as the youngest member of the City Council of Lodz), my father arranged with the embassy of the Polish Government in Exile to receive reports from key Jewish personnel in Switzerland through international cables and the diplomatic pouch.
On September 3, 1942, he was called to receive a report from Yitzchok Sternbuch, the Agudah representative in Switzerland, that the Nazis were evacuating the Warsaw Ghetto, that they had “bestially murdered about one hundred thousand Jews,” and that “mass murders are continuing” with the bodies of the victims being used for the manufacture of soap and artificial fertilizers.
About the Author: Nathan Lewin is a Washington, D.C., lawyer who wrote the 1983 New York Get Law and the COLPA amicus curiae brief in Avitzur v. Avitzur, the 1983 New York Court of Appeals decision that approved, 4-to-3, the constitutionality of a pre-nuptial agreement requiring the couple to appear before a bet din in case of divorce.
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