The Child is Father to the Man

When Baruch wrote his memoir The President and I, he asked his daughter Zamira to write the postscript. The resulting tribute reflected how Baruch perceived himself and how he wished to be remembered.

“William Wordsworth expressed an undeniable human truth when he wrote that the child is father of the man. Rare, however, is the man who recognizes the import of that thought even as he lives it. Baruch Korff is such a man.

“To a superficial observer, Korff’s life would seem to be many lives. Countless Americans remember him as President Richard Nixon’s confidant and most vocal supporter throughout the Watergate crisis, as the architect of the National Citizens’ Committee for Fairness to the Presidency. The rabbi’s faithful, here and abroad, undoubtedly remember him as their personal and spiritual benefactor, the man who saw them through the challenges and trials of their lives and who constantly spurred them to thought with his pointed and eloquent admonitions. Men and women privy to the realm of international diplomacy know Rabbi Korff as a respected negotiator with countless missions to the Middle East and trouble spots worldwide to his credit, an expert who is still consulted by government officials for his skills.

“Historians of the post-World War II period know Korff for the role he played as liaison for Lehi (the Stern Group) and the Irqun Tzvai Leumi and as the Executive Vice President and United Nations Observer for the Political Action Committee for Palestine, all of which, in the 1940s, put him at the very forefront of the battle for the creation of the Jewish state. And historians of the actual war years are well aware–as are countless others who either lived through that terrible time or have studied it–of his prodigious efforts as Director of Rescue Activities for the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe and as a key advisor to the U.S. War Refugee Board and to the Vaad Hahatzalah of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada.

“In those roles, Rabbi Korff helped buy precious time and save Jewish lives by means that were condemned at the time by less passionate observers as outlandish and foolhardy–if effective. He assailed the Jewish shtadlanim, which assured his ostracism. “I am uncomfortable with the comfortable,” he once remarked. “A loner, a maverick,” the others retorted. “He doesn’t belong.” How could he?

“Those are the lives comprising the life of Baruch Korff, the man. Their unifying principles are uncompromised concern for others, a deep commitment to helping fellow Jews, and, above all, a refusal to countenance the commonplace deterrents that prevent human beings from truly acting on their consciences. And their genesis, Rabbi Korff himself has observed, lies in Baruch Korff the child.

“The first chapter of Korff’s 1953 diary, Flight from Fear, which was penned in a French jail where he was being held on suspicion of ‘terrorist activities’ on behalf of Jewish refugees, describes the formative experience of his life, an event that transpired in 1919, when the rabbi was but a boy living in a Ukrainian town called Novograd-Volinski.

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“The town was, in a way, two towns, a Jewish and a Christian one. The Jews had their three synagogues and the Christians, their four Russian Orthodox churches; their sonorous bells are the resonant backdrop to the horrific paternity of Baruch Korff.

“The rabbi recalls how the church bells at times actually unified the schizophrenic town. For, apart from summoning Christians to prayer on Sunday, they served as well as the town fire alarm during the remainder of the week. More often, though, their pealing just abraded the Jewish souls of Novograd-Volinksi, a clangorous reminder of the deep resentment that lay not very deep beneath the surface of the society around them, an invasive commemoration of centuries of all too unchristian attitudes toward Jews.

“And then the rabbi recounts the events of the autumn day that birthed the man he grew to be.

“It was not Sunday, yet the bells tolled, and in each of the town’s four churches; they seemed too loud, as if shouting rather than ringing. It was something urgent, the Jews sensed, and it was not long before they knew there was no fire that day in Novograd-Volinski.

“The bells’ message that afternoon was something else; the pealing was a call to arms, a summons to take a stand against ‘Jewish witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’, the signal for a pogrom.

“The town’s Jews, bewildered at first, ran into the street and then eventually began to congregate in makeshift hideouts, basements and ditches. ‘Defense and defiance,’ Rabbi Korff later observed from a distance of decades in his memoir, ‘lay submerged under centuries of ghetto serfdom.’

“He recalls seeing the local Christian spiritual leader, long known as a friend to the Jews, orating from atop an upturned barrel in the town square. The boy, listening for the clergyman’s impassioned attempt to calm his violent co-religionists, heard the priest’s words and felt his own blood run cold. The orator was indeed impassioned, but in incitement, not containment, of the crowd. He commanded his rapt listeners to regard the economic success of the local Jewish population and then contrast it with their own miserable poverty. He charged them to exact retribution for all the disdain the Jew had no doubt harbored for them, their church, and their savior over the years.

“As the crowd grew larger, the invective grew uglier. ‘The Jew is corrupt to the bone, the priest barked, a reptile, fighting the forces of salvation with Satan’s weapons.’

‘Look at him! He is different, a diabolic beast with the mark of Cain!’

‘“His synagogues are brothels! Burn, destroy the brothels!’

“Elsewhere in the city the scene was duplicated. The Jew was branded a child of the devil and all who were willing to ‘avenge the cross’ were assured of divine consecration.

“The church bells tolled their assent and set the pace for the beatings, pillage, rape and murder that ensued that September day. Christian bells sounded the call for human sacrifice.

“In a corner of the terrified Jewish section of town, a woman with a baby in her arms and three older children in tow, scurried for safety. One of the children, a boy, stumbled and hit the pavement, bloodying his knee. The shock of seeing his mother continue to run despite his own fall obscured the pain of his skinned knee; insult, however, quickly crystallized into fear. The boy picked himself up and ran to catch up with his fleeing mother. When he heard gunfire, he turned and saw men and women, children and animals fall to the ground behind him. Blood stained the street, pooling here and there in the dirt, while cries of ‘Kill the Jews!’ filled the air.

“Then, turning back toward his family, the boy saw a bullet catch his mother; she swayed and fell on her back amid a pile of broken furniture. Nearby, a man moaned his last “Hear O Israel’” The children huddled together with their mother, who exhorted them to remain quiet and keep their heads down. When the infant she still held began to whimper, she bared her breast to nurse him. The older boy felt numb at the sight of the puddle of his mother’s blood that swelled around his elbow where he lay.

“’It’s only a flesh wound, Boruch’l,’ his mother reassured him. ‘Just remain still, say nothing at all.’ And so the family lay and listened, to the cries and the moans and the church bells. Only when night fell did the relentless tolling finally cease. Mother and children remained still, the woman half-asleep, the youngsters watching wide-eyed as scavengers walked among the bodies in the moonlight, removing shoes, clothes and valuables from the dead. The mother issued a premonition to the boy. ‘I bequeath you the years I was to live, my son,’ she sobbed, as one scavenger approached them. Ignoring the terrified children, the thief fixed his sight on their mother’s diamond earrings, and, with both hands, tore then simultaneously from her ears. The woman’s eyes opened suddenly and wide as the unexpected, intense pain emerged from her mouth in a piercing scream. The startled pillager dropped his booty, staggered, then stepped back and drew his pistol.

“The woman’s shriek died away and a cold silence reigned. The baby, momentarily disturbed from his sleep, returned, oblivious, to his mother’s breast as the other children stared in horror.

“Zhyidovskaya morda, the man snarled. Then, only miraculously missing the suckling infant, he emptied his pistol into the woman’s body.

“Die, Jew.

“Though Baruch may still have looked like a terrified, helpless little boy, that was the moment he began to become a man.

“Rabbi Korff’s words, from his memoir:

“‘Congealed with fear, my limbs shriveled. Coward, coward! cried a voice on the rebound. There was something odd about the voice. It was not human. Driven by the wind, it was strange and mystic, coming from behind the clouds that lined the far end of the sky. Coward, coward, coward.”

“Other images from the life of Rabbi Korff the man emerge in sequence:

“His ceaseless war-years petitioning, heads of European states, as well as the United States Congress, Supreme Court justices, and governors, demanding the rescue of Jews languishing in concentration camps.

“The clandestine and dangerous negotiations he held with surrogates of Gestapo head, Heinrich Himmler, over the purchase of Jews from Germany for $26 a head.

“The trying months in 1944 when he badgered Secretary of State Cordell Hull to move on the issue of several thousand interned European Jewish refugees. The months when Korff relentlessly enlisted President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr. in his efforts, making the Secretary (according to Morgenthau’s own diaries) physically ill for the experience. The period during which Korff pursued John Pehle, the head of the War Refugee Board, as well, waking him once at 2:00 AM to alert him of crucial developments and imminent death.

“The outstanding success of bringing about the establishment of a reception center for Holocaust refugees at Oswego, New York, was given recognition, May 16, 1944, in the Congressional Record, in which Representative Thomas Lane of Massachusetts said, ‘Rabbi Korff has been working untiringly for the establishment of free ports of refuge for these human souls…The entire nation owes this man a debt of gratitude for his contribution to the various agencies of out government in helping to solve this most difficult problem.

“The image of Korff utterly scandalizing his government by providing syndicated columnist, Drew Pearson, evidence of the State Department’s unconscionable procrastinations on the issue of refugees from the Holocaust.

“Or the image of Korff demanding that the U.S. Air Force bomb the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz death camp, the conduit by which thousands of Jews were delivered to the ovens. On November 2, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower informed Korff by telegram that ‘The conditions described in your message are well known to me. German authorities have been repeatedly and explicitly warned by radio and leaflets against committing atrocities on prisoners or civilian deportees and told that the guilty would be brought to justice.’

“Another image, from the summer of that same year: Korff publicly presenting a petition to House Speaker McCormack on the Capitol steps. The petition, urging that Hungarian Jews be permitted to enter Palestine, carried 500,000 signatures.

“And then one from the following year, when Korff helped organize a march of 1,000 rabbis on Washington, demanding the transfer of 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine.

“And one from the fall of 1947, when Korff was arrested in France for ‘terrorist activities’–an alleged plot to parachute leaflets and explosives into Great Britain in retaliation for the British refusal to allow the Exodus—1947 to discharge its human cargo onto Palestinian shores.

“And one of Korff the following year, challenging President Truman to live up to his ‘pious statements’ on the issue of Palestine.

“Now, back to his diary, Flight from Fear, to the young Korff, cowering in the shadow of his dying mother: ‘Coward, coward, coward (came the disembodied voice).’ Tears swelled my eyes and guilt settled in my heart…Would these words torment me forever?

“Knowing the life that anguished little boy subsequently came to live as an adult, his relentless commitment to principle in the face of the most daunting odds, his bold confrontation of presidents and policies, his influence on modern American history and utter refusal to so much as countenance fear in his pursuit of justice and safety for his people, one imagines not.

“Regrettably, Korff’s notoriety stemming from his defense of Richard Nixon has overshadowed and, at times, even eclipsed his career.

“Korff, however, does not concede to have wavered in any way from his principles. To the contrary, he offers convincing evidence for the wisdom and morality of his immersion in President Nixon’s cause. “I am Zamira. Baruch Korff is my father.”[1]

[1] Korff, Baruch. The President and, pp. 206-215