Bernard Cantor, born in Buffalo, New York, on March 30, 1892, was one of the seven children of Rev. Isaac Cantor and Rose Rachel Cantor (née Friedland), immigrants from Eastern Europe. Because of his strong ties with leaders in the Reform movement Cantor decided to enter the Reform rabbinate. Cantor received his BA and MA degrees at the University of Cincinnati, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, did post-graduate work at Columbia University, New York, and was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1916. In 1915-1916, he was an Associate Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati and an Instructor at Hebrew Union College. During his years in rabbinical school, Cantor served as a student rabbi in many communities. From 1917-1920, he was the Associate Rabbi of the Free Synagogue of New York City founded by Stephen S. Wise. In 1920 he became the rabbi of the Free Synagogue in Flushing, New York.
Cantor had experience in social work and with the declaration, “Will it make a better man of me and will I be able to truly serve my people?” he enlisted for service in Poland with Overseas Unit Number 1 of the Joint Distribution Committee, which departed for Europe in January 1920. Made up of twenty-three volunteers from the United States, the Unit’s task was to provide relief to Jewish communities in Poland devastated by the turmoil that resulted from World War I and to assist in their rehabilitation. Cantor’s co-workers in the Unit later wrote, “He was beloved by all of us for his cheerfulness, his bubbling enthusiasm and his ever-ready willingness to volunteer for difficult and hard service. When calls came – as they did so frequently, from far and near – he was always the first to go. No task was too great, no labor too menial.”
Cantor arrived in Poland in February 1920 and was assigned to Eastern Galicia (today Ukraine). “He became known the country over as the man who always came when needed…he managed to bring his message of cheer to the great town and the small, and gladdened the hearts of those poor forsaken ones.” Dr. Boris Bogen, Director for JDC Poland and Ukraine, 1919-1920, reported to Felix M. Warburg, the first JDC Chairman, that he considered Cantor one of the most brilliant members of the Polish Unit.
While in Kamenets-Podolsky allocating JDC funds among local Jewish relief agencies, Cantor met up with Professor Israel Friedlaender of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who was also on a JDC mercy mission. Disregarding warnings of the danger of pogroms and civil unrest in the area, Cantor and Friedlaender, together with a leader of the Tarnopol Jewish community named Grossman, set out early on July 5, 1920 to return to Lemberg. On the highway leading from Kamenets-Podolsky at the entrance to Yarmolintsy, in the vicinity of the shtetl of Sokolovka, their car was attacked by members of a Red Army cavalry unit that had broken through a section of the frontline. Cantor and Friedlaender were mistaken for Polish officers while Grossman was mistaken for a landowner.They were killed by Bolshevik soldiers and their driver escaped.
The murders of Cantor and Friedlaender sent shock waves through the Jewish communities of Poland and the United States. The Chairman of the Central Committee in Lemberg declared that “with the passing of Cantor, Lemberg had suffered a great loss. With Cantor in that city, they always had a feeling of safety; his presence at their counsel table had always been an inspiration and a help. In short, he brought to Poland a message from American Jewry; he typified for them the American Jew – upright, honest, fearless, idealistic and true.”
A citywide memorial service was held for Cantor at Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York on September 7, 1920. His fiancée, Irene Abramowitz, who came to Buffalo from Lemberg, was one of the speakers. On September 9, 1920, a JDC-sponsored Memorial Meeting attended by more than three thousand people was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Cantor was survived by his parents, three brothers – Maxwell, Maurice and Nathan – and three sisters – Ida, Esther and Ethel.
Cantor and Friedlaender were buried in the Yarmolintsy cemetery. The initial intention of the JDC was to return the bodies to the United States for burial but, given the chaotic conditions in the area at that time, this was not possible. The JDC saw to it that proper tombstones were erected, paying for their design and installation, and its office in Moscow sent sketches of them to New York for review by the family. The dedication took place on July 5, 1923, and was recorded by a series of photographs. Subsequently, during the years of communist rule, the Ukrainian province where Cantor and Friedlaender were buried was declared off-limits to foreigners and, over the years, the cemetery deteriorated. During the German occupation of World War II, the local Jewish population was murdered, and after the war, the area remained inaccessible. In 2000, upon learning that a portion of the Yarmolintsy cemetery had survived and after conducting meticulous research, JDC staff member Michael Beizer asked the Kiev office of the JDC to see if the tombstones were still in place. Igor Ratushny, director of the Khmelnitsky Hesed Besht charity organization supported by the JDC, visited Yarmolintsy, and, guided by sketches of the tombstones, rediscovered the graves of Bernard Cantor and Israel Friedlaender. The JDC restored the tombstone over Cantor’s grave, and at the request of his relatives his body remained in the Yarmolintsy cemetery. Israel Friedlaender was reburied in Jerusalem on July 10, 2001.
Adler, Selig. From Ararat to Suburbia – the History of the Jews of Buffalo Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1960.
Beizer, Michael and Mikhail Mitsel The American Brother: the “Joint” in Russia, the USSR and the CIS New York: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 2004. (pages 28-32)
Beizer, Michael, “Who Murdered Professor Israel Friedlaender and Rabbi Bernard Cantor: The Truth Rediscovered”, American Jewish Archives Journal, Vol. LV 2003, No. 1.
Book issued for the Memorial Meeting – Israel Friedlaender – Bernard Cantor at Carnegie Hall – New York City on September 9, 1920, under the auspices of the Joint Distribution Committee of the American Funds for Jewish War Sufferers and its Constituent Committees, the American, Central, and People’s Relief Committees along with additional organizations.
JDC Archives, AR. 1919-1921, Files 20, 33-35.
Program Distributed at September 9, 1920, Memorial Meeting.