June 24, 2009

Briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO

. . . The righteous shall be remembered forever.
(Psalms 112:6)

The above quote is at the heart of a new memorial just unveiled in the JDC-Israel building in Jerusalem.

The memorial honors the memory of the 43 JDC employees who, over our 95-year history, have died serving the Jewish people.

The seeds for the memorial were planted 10 years ago when I lived in Jerusalem for a year and served as the Director of JDC-Israel and the FSU team. One of our staff members, Michael Beizer, came to me with a disturbing report about the death of two JDC employees in 1920 in the Ukraine. The employees were Rabbi Bernard Cantor and Professor Israel Friedlander. These two Americans were based in Poland and were helping Jews in need during the Polish-Soviet War. The Joint sent them, by car, to the Ukraine with money to assist the Jews there. Along the way, their car was stopped, the money was stolen, and the two men were murdered.

Their burial in the Ukraine, which was arranged by the Joint, received substantial publicity that included a front page story in The New York Times. Once that emotional period of time was over, however, Rabbi Cantor and Professor Friedlander were essentially forgotten until Michael Beizer shared the file with me in 1999. Deeply moved by this information, I asked Amos Avgar, then a member of the FSU team, to send people to find the cemetery and to locate the gravesites in order to determine if the graves were being properly maintained after 89 years.

As it turned out, the cemetery had been destroyed; all the tombstones had been knocked down and trees were planted during the Soviet years. The two volunteers that Amos sent on this mission searched this new forest for several hours looking for the tombstones, but to no avail. Just as they were ready to give up, one of the searchers tripped and fell to the ground. He had fallen over a tombstone. Beneath the dirt he brushed off the stone was an inscription of Israel Friedlander’s name.

The story continues: Prof. Friedlander’s family now lives in Israel and asked us to help them move the body to Israel for burial. Rabbi Cantor’s family preferred that his remains be left in their resting place in Ukraine. Both wishes were dutifully granted and the Ukrainian grave site for Rabbi Cantor was restored and is monitored on a regular basis.

This series of historical events made me wonder how many JDC employees had actually sacrificed their lives for the Jewish people. As a result, I asked Ralph Goldman to chair a committee to search our archives in New York and Jerusalem. That search identified 43 employees for whom we had adequate records verifying that they had died in the line of service to JDC and the Jewish people.

Given the numbers of employees and the circumstances surrounding the Friedlander and Cantor gravesites, it became clear to me that JDC had an obligation to both tell and commemorate these individuals’ stories. As a result, an interactive memorial with the history of each of the 43 employees has been built in the JDC-Israel building near the Myers-JDC-Brookdale entrance. Over 100 members of the JDC family gathered and dedicated this memorial on June 7, 2009, and I was honored to be in Jerusalem and speak at this meaningful event.

In future columns I will periodically write about the lives of these ordinary Jews who, in their own way, represent extraordinary models. And through our joint connection and visits to the Memorial Wall, we will honor the lives of these unsung Jewish heroes so that “the righteous shall be remembered forever.”

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