My father, Dr. Isaac Lewin, z”l, was elected to the Lodz City Council at the age of 30, shortly after he and my mother, a”h, settled in Poland’s second-largest city.
Lodz’s population was one-third Jewish, and my father’s reputation as an articulate spokesman for Jewish religious causes was already established by 1936. He was not only the elder son of the Reisher Rav, Aaron Lewin, z”l, hy”d, who was an extraordinary gaon and a brilliant orator in Polish twice elected to the Polish Sejm, but my father had written scholarly articles and opinion pieces for widely distributed Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish publications while in his twenties.
The task of defending the rights of Lodz’s Jewish residents was not an easy one. One of two volumes of my father’s essays published by Mossad HaRav Kook in 1988 (“Demuyot Ve-Iruim Historiyim”) contains 15 pages describing speeches he made during the four years he served in the Lodz City Council, including translations of transcripts of sharp exchanges with rabid anti-Semites in that elected body.
Today’s anti-Semites want to throw Jews out of Israel into the sea; in the Thirties it was common for their predecessors to call on Jews to “go to Palestine!”
My father reports in his essay that on November 9, 1936, a card-carrying member of the openly anti-Semitic National Democratic Party broke into a Jewish-owned store on Kolinski Street and murdered Yisrael Isaac Zendel and Yaakov Yoseph Berkowitz. These murders followed the party’s public campaign of hatred against Lodz’s Jewish population.
Zendel left a widow and two infant sons. Berkowitz left a widow and seven young children. My father proposed that the city provide some financial assistance to the bereaved families. His resolution was scheduled for debate on January 28, 1937, and he was allotted five minutes to speak in its favor.
That morning another Lodz Jew, Shimon Klemner, was murdered by a National Democratic Party member. The council meeting was held in the evening. My father stood to speak and managed to utter only “honorable council” when he was shouted down by Casimierz and Bronislaw Kowalski, two brothers on the council who were members of the anti-Semitic party.
Casimierz shouted, “Take care! Hold your tongue.” Bronislaw joined in with a derisive half-Yiddish half-Polish warning that delivered the same message to the Jewish speaker.
My father noted that he had, by that date, attended four meetings of the council and could more easily speak openly of the murders that had taken place on the streets of Lodz. He was, he said, effectively inviting the angel of death into the council meeting. At this point, the transcript reflects disturbances on the floor and the mayor calling for “Silence, silence.”
My father continued, “Maybe the tears of orphans and widows will influence you to finally do what is best for the country and the city. For several months terrible crimes have been committed on the streets of Lodz. The anti-Semitic campaign has borne fruit. And this morning another victim has been added, a young Jew, 27 years old, who harmed no one, was stabbed and killed on Sterling Street.”
At this point the transcript reflects that one of the Kowalskis interrupted, “So what? Only one? Bravo, bravo. And how many Poles have you killed?”
My father responded: “This is an urgent matter. It deserves your silent attention.”
Another of the Jew-haters on the council, Mr. Czernick, then interjected, “In 18 years only one? Only one dog-soul? I am ready to kill hundreds of you in one hour.”
The mayor, ringing a bell, called again for silence.
My father continued with a protest against the vile murders and called for cooperation in the city of Lodz, which owed so much to the ingenuity and efforts of its Jewish residents.
About the Author: Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”
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