Dr. Rafael MedoffThe writer is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C. His latest book is "FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith".
A descendant of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, Korff was the son of a rabbi and was groomed to follow in his footsteps. But as a child growing up in the Soviet Ukraine, he saw his mother murdered in a pogrom. That trauma impressed upon the youngster the perils of Jewish statelessness and nurtured in him a determination to actively fight for Jewish rights.
After receiving rabbinical ordination in Poland in 1936, Korff became the spiritual leader of a small congregation near Boston. News of the Nazi slaughter of Europe's Jews galvanized Korff to leave his pulpit in 1943 and join the Bergson Group, political activists who used newspaper ads, rallies, and lobbying to press for the rescue of Jewish refugees. Energetic and devoted, Korff quickly rose to become one of the Bergsonites' top lobbyists in Washington. He also worked closely with the Va'ad ha-Hatzala, an Orthodox rescue group.
After the S.S. Exodus was prevented from reaching Palestine and forced to return to Germany in the summer of 1947, Korff announced that his Political Action Committee would undertake an "Exodus by Air" that would parachute thousands of Holocaust survivors into Palestine. Full-page ads in New York City newspapers depicted a young parachutist cradling a Torah scroll in one arm as he made his jump.
The idea was to shock the British public and intensify their sense that the British presence in Palestine was becoming more trouble than it was worth. As it turned out, Korff and his cohorts managed to achieve that aim without ever setting foot in the plane. They were arrested at the Toussus le Noble airport, near Versailles, after one member of their group turned out to be a police informant. A few days later, the French police interrogators showed Korff a front page New York Times article about his arrest, which reported that the revelation of the plot "shocked Britons deeply." Korff was more than a little pleased to read that.
Under ordinary circumstances, five suspects awaiting interrogation would not be allowed contact with one another. But Rosh Hashana arrived before the questioning began, and Rabbi Korff insisted on his right, as a clergyman, to lead the others in prayer in the prison's chapel. Worried they would appear to be mistreating an American rabbi on his High Holiday, the French authorities reluctantly acceded.
Korff then proceeded to lecture the "worshippers" on how to answer the questions posed by the French police detectives. Each of the five took a turn on the podium, swaying piously while offering suggestions as to how to coordinate their stories. "For once," the rabbi later joked, "my whole congregation welcomed the interminable length of the services."
When the interrogations ensued two days later, the police detectives were stymied by the suspects' perfectly choreographed answers. Suddenly they all had useful alibis and a ready explanation for the incriminating leaflets. With their legal case in shambles and facing embarrassing questions from the American news media over the hunger-striking rabbi, the French authorities decided to release the suspects without charges. The British government's protests were to no avail.
But if the elder Rabbi Korff thought the long weeks in French prison had convinced Baruch to take even a short break from political activism, he was mistaken. Within minutes of his arrival at the train station, the young firebrand was telling reporters of plans to create an armed brigade of young American volunteers to fight for a Jewish state in Palestine.
The British had not heard the last of Baruch Korff.