Israel Friedlaender was a world-famous scholar, a member of the JDC Board, the head of the JDC Committee on Russia, a faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a Zionist leader. He was murdered by Bolshevik soldiers on July 5, 1920, near Yarmolintsy (Ukraine) while on a mission to bring relief to Jews in Eastern Europe suffering from the effects of World War I, pogroms, and civil war.
Israel Friedlaender, the son of Pinchas and Gitel Ehrlich Friedlaender, was born on September 8, 1876, in Kovel, Volhyn gubernia (now Ukraine). From the age of two, he lived in Warsaw. Friedlaender was one of the most brilliant and noted scholars in the Jewish and general world of his era. In 1895, he began rabbinic studies at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. At the same time, he enrolled at the University of Berlin, concentrating on Semitic languages. In 1900, Friedlaender left the Seminary and decided to pursue an academic career. He studied with Theodor Noeldeke at the University of Strasbourg and was awarded a PhD degree in Semitics in 1901. The following year, he was appointed a lecturer in Semitics at the University of Strasbourg. In 1903, Friedlaender was invited by Solomon Schechter to serve as Professor of Bible and Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he later taught Jewish history as well. Friedlaender married Lilian Ruth Bentwich of London on September 26, 1905. The couple had three sons, Herzl, Benzion, and Daniel Balfour, and three daughters, Carmel, Judith-Susanna and Nechama Joy.
Once in New York, Friedlaender, a Renaissance Man and an inspiring teacher, actively participated in every aspect of Jewish communal life. He served as the first Chairman of New York City’s Bureau of Jewish Education, the first president of Young Judea and a trustee of the Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side. He was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Federation of American Zionists. As one of the most important intellectual and religious figures of American Jewry, Friedlaender was a sought-after speaker. A prolific writer, he published translations of Dubnow’s History of the Jews in Russia and Poland and Ahad Ha’am’s essays. He wrote numerous articles on Semitic languages, Jewish culture, and contemporary Jewish issues.
Friedlaender, a dedicated Zionist, had hoped to be appointed as the JDC representative on a mission to Palestine organized by the Red Cross in 1918, immediately after World War I. When circumstances prevented his participation, JDC elected him a member-at-large of its Board and the head of the JDC Committee on Russia. Friedlaender volunteered immediately to go to Russia as a JDC representative even though there was considerable unrest at the time in Eastern Europe, including pogroms and civil war. The JDC board hesitated to permit such a world-famous scholar from embarking on so dangerous a mission, but Friedlaender persisted until his application was accepted. Before his departure, he was appointed JDC Commissioner to the Ukraine.
In January, 1920, Friedlaender left for Europe. He traveled to Poland together with the Overseas Unit Number 1 of the JDC, which departed for Eastern Europe at that time, and reached Warsaw in February, 1920. The situation in Poland and Eastern Europe was rapidly deteriorating. A typhus epidemic raged in the Ukraine, and Russia was wracked by civil war. The American Red Cross soon withdrew its remaining staff from the area after some of its workers lost their lives. Friedlaender remained, however, and insisted that if everyone was concerned only with safety, there would be no one to bring relief to the suffering Jews.
Eastern Europe at the time was in complete turmoil. Soviet soldiers advanced into Poland, which had declared its independence, and there was chaos in the border areas. There were rumors of pogroms in Poland and the Ukraine. Friedlaender refused to be intimidated. He claimed that the sight of JDC workers in American uniforms would be a deterrent to those who planned to carry out pogroms. In June, he set out to locate General Pilsudski of the Polish army in order to solicit his help in protecting the vulnerable Jews. In Kamenets-Podolsky, Friedlaender met up with Rabbi Bernard Cantor, who had arrived in Poland with Overseas Unit Number 1. The two decided to travel together by car, as they believed this would be safer than traveling alone. 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 Lvov. 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. Friedlaender and Cantor who were mistaken for Polish officers and Grossman for a Polish landowner, were killed by the Bolshevik soldiers. Their driver escaped.
Friedlaender’s death shocked the American and European Jewish communities. More than three thousand people attended a Memorial Meeting for Cantor and Friedlaender, which was sponsored by the JDC and other organizations, and held at Carnegie Hall in New York on September 9, 1920. The massive crowd packed the hall completely and spilled outside. Friedlaender was survived by his wife and children, his parents, his brother David and two sisters, Sallie and Mania.
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, it was not possible. The JDC saw to it that proper tombstones were erected, paying for their design and installation, and its Moscow office 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.
Friedlaender’s family requested that his body be brought to Jerusalem. On July 10, 2001, on the eighty-first anniversary of Friedlaender’s murder, a memorial ceremony was held for him outside the JDC headquarters in Jerusalem, in the presence of Friedlaender’s one surviving child, Carmel Friedlaender Agranat. Those attending included family members, friends, JDC officials, and representatives of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Schechter Institute of Jerusalem. The procession made its way from the JDC-Israel building to the Bentwich Family Plot, on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, where Friedlaender was reburied.
Bauer, Yehuda. My Brother’s Keeper – A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1974.
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.
Beizer, Michael.”Who Murdered Professor Israel Friedlaender and Rabbi Bernard Cantor: The Truth Rediscovered,” The American Jewish Archives Journal, Volume LV 2003, Number 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.
Cohen, Boaz. “Israel Friedlaender – Glimpses of His Life and Work.” The Council Chronicle, February, 1928.
______. Israel Friedlaender – A Bibliography of His Writings with an Appreciation. New York: 1936.
Golinkin, David. Insight Israel – The View from Schechter. Chapter 24 – “A Eulogy for Professor Israel Friedlaender Delivered at his Reinterment in Jerusalem, July 10, 2001.”
JDC/NY Catalogue 1919-1921, Friedlaender – Cantor, Reel 7 – AR1921. 20-34A; Reel 8 – AR1921. 35-49A.
New York Times – July 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18; September 9, 1920.
Parzen, Herbert. Architects of Conservative Judaism. New York: Jonathan David, 1964. [Chapter 7 – Israel Friedlaender – A Teacher of Cultural Judaism].
Program Distributed at September 9, 1920 Memorial Meeting.
Shargel, Baila Round. Practical Dreamer: Israel Friedlaender and the Shaping of American Judaism. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1985.