NEW YORK (Jul. 22)
Whenever the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith honors a Righteous Gentile — someone who rescued Jews during the Holocaust — Abe Foxman goes over to the rescuer and, tears welling up in his eyes, clasps him or her in a giant bear hug. In that embrace, Foxman is once again holding a very special person in his life, for each time this happens he is remembering the woman who saved his life when he was a baby.
When he was a year old, Foxman’s parents, Joseph and Helen, seeing the Nazi pincers close around the Jews of Poland, entrusted him to the care of his Catholic nursemaid, Bronislawa Kurpi, who raised him as her own son in Vilna, where they fled from their home in Baranovicz.
For his, and her family’s protection, she baptized him as a Catholic and brought him up in that religion with the name Henryk Stanislav Kurpi.
In 1946, when Foxman was six years old, his parents, who had survived the war through different means — his father in a series of camps in Latvia and Estonia; his mother, an escapee from the Vilna ghetto, with Aryan papers and a job that supported the nursemaid and boy — reclaimed their son, and brought him up as a Jew.
“My father was very wise. He knew how to substitute one religion for the other without forcing,” Foxman recalled with a smile. But the enormity of the Catholic woman’s favor stayed with him.
In 1950, the Foxmans came to America, where they settled in Brooklyn. There, he attended Yeshiva of Flatbush.
THE DUALITY OF BACKGROUNDS
This duality of backgrounds — a profound understanding of two different religions and cultures and an overwhelming gratitude to a Christian woman who had risked her own life to allow him his — never left Foxman. Rather, he has made use of this depth of feelings and compassion in his everyday life.
Since 1965, Foxman has worked for the ADL, beginning as assistant in its law department, then, from 1968-73, as head of the Middle Eastern Affairs department, and in 1973 as head of ADL’s International Affairs department, and closely affiliated with the ADL International Center for Holocausr Studies.
On Monday, Abraham Foxman was appointed ADL national director, succeeding the late Nathan Perlmutter, who died July 12 after a long bout with cancer. Perlmutter — who always said “Call me Nate” — continued working throughout the duration of his illness, writing and talking about it, drawing people close to him as he reached out to them. Foxman was certainly one of his closest associates during his trying times.
Foxman’s accession to the directorship is “bittersweet,” he told JTA. “Nate’s passing leaves me very sad.” Foxman plans to continue at the helm of ADL in the footsteps of his predecessor.
As a lawyer — Foxman received his law degree from New York University School of Law after graduating from the City College of New York — he has applied his legal acumen to the problem of anti-Semitism. As a Holocaust survivor, Foxman has been constantly active as a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the advisory council to the New York City Holocaust Memorial Commission and the New Jersey Advisory Council on Holocaust Education. His children attend Hebrew day school in New Jersey. Foxman is also vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
A DISEASE WITHOUT A VACCINE
Foxman perceives anti-Semitism as “a disease” for which the vaccine has not yet been developed. “We’ve conquered time and space. We’ve reached the moon. We’ve developed a vaccine for smallpox. And yet, unfortunately, we have not yet come up with a vaccine against this disease. One would have hoped that after Auschwitz and Treblinka were laid bare for the world to see, that all the powers of the world, all the scientists, all the thinkers, would have concentrated all their efforts to eradicating this evil. Unfortunately, they haven’t, and anti-Semitism is here, it continues.
“People say to me, what are you going to do? Unfortunately, the agenda is outlined. We don’t have a slow season in our business. What we deal with is words. We’ve learned that words have the power to kill, that words unchallenged, left in silence, words of bigotry, are part of our tradition. But words also have the ability to bring about good. And in those places where people spoke out and challenged, they offset the evil. “We’ve also learned that the power of the word to speak out has brought about the freedom of 270,000 Soviet Jews. That the power to speak out can dampen anti-Semitism, bigotry and prejudice when the powers that be, those who set the moral standard, speak out. When they’re silent, that only encourages.”
‘SOMETHING IN THE WIND’
Foxman speaks easily, swiftly, with tremendous humor, peppering his words with Hebrew phrases. His ability to communicate is a cornerstone of his work, and is enhanced by his fluency in Polish, Russian, German, Hebrew and Yiddish.
Foxman senses “something in the wind” regarding cooperation between human rights groups of different special interests. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I welcome it.” But, he said, “This is a new generation, and we have to reeducate.”
In response to a question, he said, “What am I going to be dealing with? That’s what I’m going to be dealing with. Am I an optimist? Yes. Other-wise, you can’t face the day. If I didn’t believe that you could change people’s minds, that one can influence their irrational behavior, I wouldn’t be here. But I believe you can.”
One of Foxman’s first and most cherished projects at ADL as director will be the opening September 15 of the Foundation to Sustain Righteous Christians, founded by Encino, Calif., Rabbi Harold Schulweis, and directed out of New York by psychologist Eva Fogelman, and administered by Frank Reiss.
Foxman considers the foundation “part of what the ADL is all about. And it’s a way to say thank you to compensate for all that these people did.”