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Across the Former Soviet Union Two Jews Killed in 1920 Remembered in Ukraine Ceremony

September 2, 2003
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A small ceremony in a Ukrainian shtetl has helped to bring closure to a remarkable tale of courage and martyrdom.

Israel Friedlander and Rabbi Bernard Cantor were executed 83 years ago by Soviet troops after crossing from Poland into Ukraine as part of a post-World War I mission to the region initiated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The two finally were properly laid to rest in the shtetl of Yarmolinsky on Aug. 27, as members of their families prayed over their recently discovered gravestones.

Friedlander and Cantor’s story began in the chaos following World War I and the Russian Revolution, when the JDC raised funds and launched a mission to bring relief to the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Friedlander, 43, a Polish-born American, Conservative Jew and Zionist, was among the small group of Jewish leaders who formed the JDC’s first executive committee. He returned to his native Poland the following year to help carry out the relief campaign.

Accompanying him was Cantor, a Reform rabbi and social worker, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College who worked at the Free Synagogue in New York.

In July 1920, the pair crossed the Polish frontier en route to Kiev, a major center of Jewish life. But they never arrived: They were captured in Yarmolinsky and shot as “Polish spies” on July 10.

The murders shocked American Jewry and embarrassed the Soviet authorities, who later apologized.

“The story of Friedlander and Cantor — of their murders in 1920, and of the rediscovery of their graves 80 years later — is a sobering reminder of the strength of the ties that bind Jews to one another,” the JDC said in a statement, describing the effort that found the gravesites near the regional capital of Khmelnitsky in 2000. The JDC arranged for the transfer of Friedlander’s remains to Israel the following year, and brought a group of eight descendants back to Ukraine for a commemoration ceremony.

It was the combined effort of two present-day JDC officials — New York-based researcher Michael Beizer and Igor Ratushny, director of the JDC Becht Hesed welfare center in Khmelnitsky — who helped uncover the graves in an abandoned, overgrown cemetery.

More help from the JDC followed. Israel Agranat, Friedlander’s grandson and a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the former executive director of the JDC, Ralph Goldman, was instrumental, along with Rabbi Uri Miller of the Jerusalem Burial Society, in having Friedlander’s remains brought to Israel and in arranging for the families to make their own trip to Ukraine this year.

Friedlander left behind a wife and six children in the United States. Soon after his death, they immigrated to Palestine.

His only surviving child, Carmel Agranat — Israel Agranat’s mother — was still alive when his remains were brought to Israel in 2001. They were interred in the family plot on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.

“It was my mother’s dream to have him buried there — and you have to understand the context,” said Aharon Agranat, another of Carmel’s sons. “She had said goodbye to her father when he left New York for Poland, and she never saw him again. That had been like a wound for her that hadn’t closed all those years — and I think the burial in Jerusalem was the completion of a circle.”

Israel Agranat, said another wish of their mother’s also was realized: Friedlander’s gravestone on Mount Scopus is an unusually shaped obelisk, identical to the one uncovered in Yarmolinsky.

Verses from Proverbs adorn it; including: “Lived for his people; Died for his people.”

In some ways, Cantor’s story is even more tragic. Just 28 years old and engaged to be married at the time of his murder, he left no direct descendants. It was two great-nephews, Warren and Stuart Grover, who traveled to Ukraine for the Aug. 27 dedication.

Still, Cantor did leave his wishes behind. Writing to his fiancee in 1920 before making the fateful journey to Kiev, he expressed some of his fears for the mission, as well as his hopes for the future.

“If I should die, it is nothing; if I am forgotten, it is nothing; if only the Jews remember the cause for which I die,” he wrote in the letter, which was included in a commemorative book presented at a 1920 Carnegie Hall ceremony to honor the pair.

It appears that Jews have remembered them.

At the Yarmolinsky ceremony, Friedlander’s great-granddaughter, Roberta Louis, director of distance learning at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies in Glencoe, Ill., read aloud letters of commemoration, including ones from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College.

So much good “has come out of this mission; and not just for our families,” said Louis, referring to a cultural fund set up in Friedlander’s name at the Khmelnitsky Hesed center, as well as to a scholarship fund created by the Agranat family.

“What was really their vision?” Louis asked. “Strengthening Jewish life. And 83 years later, they’re still strengthening Jewish life.”

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