Past & Present

At a theater in Berlin in 2005, Dr. Israel Singer, World Jewish Congress chairman, addresses guests during a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. (Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images)

An interview with Dr. Israel Singer

From the 1970s to the present, Dr. Israel Singer has been intimately involved in some of the most high-profile negotiations affecting the Jewish world. In his roles as secretary general and chairman of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and leader of the two major organizations responsible for Holocaust-era restitution, he has sat across the table from presidents and prime ministers, popes and bankers to advance the causes that his organizations had deemed the order of the day.

For more than ten years, Dr. Singer has stepped back from the frontlines, spending much time now in his role as a professor of Contemporary Jewry at the Lander Colleges and the Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Touro College. Yet he remains intimately involved in many key issues, while keeping a far lower profile than during the period of his career that won him much recognition. Yet “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is an adage keenly illustrated by his exploits, past and present.

To spend an hour with Dr. Singer, a talented and animated raconteur, is to be fascinated and amused at the same time. One of the most intriguing aspects of his career is that nearly a half-century after it began, some of the issues in which he was most intimately involved have re-emerged — or have never left the headlines at all.

The Rabbi, the Pope, & the Jewish Cardinal

Dr. Singer (C) with Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican announced plans this past March to open the files of Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII. The opportunity to exonerate, incriminate or at least explain the Catholic Church’s overwhelming silence vis-à-vis Nazi genocide based on first-hand evidence was welcomed by scholars of the period, whose applications to view the documents are currently pending approval.

What was noted by only a few of the scores of news articles on this announcement was that Pope Francis’ move was not so much his own decision; rather, it was the fulfillment of a promise made to Dr. Singer 35 years ago by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

“[John Paul II] told me that ‘we believe in opening files and giving everyone a chance to read what went on,’ but he also said, ‘Be aware that our Church is a church that doesn’t make quick decisions. This may not happen in your lifetime or mine.’ I told him, ‘If it doesn’t happen in my lifetime it’s really bad, because I’m a young guy,’ and he laughed,” Dr. Singer said. “It is now the year 2019 and we opened this meeting in 1985. So I want you to know that when he told me the Church moves very slowly, it did, and indeed he died before it happened. But I really believe he wanted to open them, and even he didn’t think it would take 35 years.”

Dr. Singer credited Pope Francis with the opening, positing that the long delay was likely due to a combination of internal resistance and scandals.

“The fact that after a period of over 30 years the files are finally being opened is due in no small measure to the perseverance of the present pope who, if not as effective as I thought he would be, has been sincere,” he said. “This delay had nothing to do with Jews. The past two popes ended up being overwhelmed with accusations of abuse and opposition from a wing of the Church that was afraid the files would prevent Pius from being granted sainthood [and] worked very hard to prevent these files from coming to light.”

It was hardly the only difficult topic broached during nearly two decades of meetings between Dr. Singer — who was then acting as a representative of the World Jewish Congress — and the Vatican. Through a series of what he called “confrontations” rather than dialogues, Dr. Singer secured a formal papal apology for the Church’s inaction during the Holocaust and established formal ties between the Vatican and the State of Israel.

Most importantly, Dr. Singer says, the talks convinced the Vatican to exert pressure on the Soviet Union to allow for religious articles such as sefarim, calendars, and matzos to reach Jews behind the Iron Curtain, and eventually to allow for Jews to emigrate.

Despite his historic accomplishments, when talks began in earnest in the early 1980s, Dr. Singer seemed an unlikely candidate to act as world Jewry’s emissary to the papacy. A musmach of Yeshivah Torah Vodaath, born and raised in Williamsburg, he hardly fit the profile of the decidedly secular WJC, an organization he joined after a short stint in the administration of President Gerald Ford. Yet his biography was the least surprising feature to observers of Jewish-Catholic relations during those years: Early in his career in Jewish advocacy, at age 26, Dr. Singer had the singular distinction of stridently refusing to be part of a delegation of Jewish groups who met with Pope Paul VI.

Cardinals in Dr. Singer’s home negotiating the release of Holocaust-era Vatican files.

“I attended a meeting in Rome with people from AJC and Bnei Brith and ADL to prepare to meet with the pope, when I found out that the Vatican had scheduled the meeting on Shabbos. When I objected, all these non-religious people immediately decided that we could walk to the meeting,” he said. “I said back that if we’re going to ask him to talk about the Holocaust and relations with Israel, we can’t do it in a way that continues 2,000 years of relations where the pope calls Jews to meet with him on Shabbos and then talks down to them from his throne.”

The meeting took place, but without the young zealot from WJC, who flew back to America and publicly criticized the Vatican for its choice of scheduling, as well as those Jewish representatives who had participated in the meeting.

“It caused quite a stir, because most of these other people were in their 70s and asked, ‘Who’s this kid making policy?’ That was the end of my relationship with the Vatican for a while, as you can imagine.”

If Dr. Singer was an improbable ambassador, the man who ended up acting as peacemaker and arbitrator was even more unlikely: Jean Marie (Ahron Dovid) Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism while in hiding during World War II, had been ordained a priest and had risen through the ranks to become cardinal of Paris. He and Dr. Singer met at a memorial event after the 1980 bombing of the Copernic Synagogue in Paris, and formed a close but complicated relationship.

“[Lustiger] was very conflicted; he felt that he was a Jew and a Catholic. I told him that you can’t be both, and we talked about it for the rest of his life,” Dr. Singer said. “He was very close with Pope John Paul II, and he felt that we could create a better relationship between Jews and the Church. John Paul was from Poland; he knew Jews and he also felt changes were in order.”

Through a series of private meetings between Dr. Singer, John Paul II, and often “Ahron Dovid,” as Dr. Singer wryly refers to Paris’ former cardinal, a new era of relations between Jews and the Church began.

In Brussels in 2004, Dr. Singer, chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress, with European Commission Chairman Romano Prodi before their talks at European Headquarters. (Gerard CerlesS/AFP/Getty Images)

“Of all the various unpleasant meetings that I had with [Kurt] Waldheim and with the chancellor of Germany about Bitburg, and the president of Russia about letting Jews out, none of them was as frank and, in the end, as constructive as the meetings with the Vatican. And it was all because of this Jew who didn’t know who he was.”

Although thoroughly convinced that the Vatican’s Holocaust files have been “cleansed,” Dr. Singer said that, regarding the record of churchmen’s behavior during that war, the documents are likely to confirm a mixed bag of good, evil and indifference that John Paul himself had spoken of in their meetings.

“They’ve been cleaning them for over 40 years, and the only people who don’t believe that are in a category together with those who believe in the tooth fairy. The only question is how much has been taken out. The truth is, though, that it’s important anyway. Our goal isn’t to expose their bad behavior. We know there were collaborators within the Church, and I don’t expect any shocking news, just confirmation. What I hope we find is more about ourselves.”

The greater boon Dr. Singer is hopeful the files will reveal is a detailed record of what befell the Jewish people in those years, culled from reports of local Church officials, which eventually made their way to the Vatican.

“Aside from a few writings from the Warsaw Ghetto, this could be one of the only independent records we have. It could tell us where and when Jews were killed, where mass graves are, and a lot about where Jewish property is and who took it. Every single town priest had meetings with the Rabbi. What do the notes from those meetings say about what was going on? How many shuls and sifrei Torah were burned? Where did priests and nuns hide Jews, and which ones gave those children back? Rabbis came to ask priests if they would hide sifrei Torah and sefarim and kessarim, if they would hide the menorahs. If they did, where did they hide them and where are they? How many leichter were taken out of homes, and when townspeople took away the jewelry the Jews left behind, did the priest look at it as theft? Who took them — the Nazis or the townspeople? We have a right to know all these things.”

While not formally tasked with chronicling the Holocaust, the clerics held two polarized views of events that motivated many of them to keep detailed records, Dr. Singer believes.

“It was a historic event for the Catholics. Some believed the Jews were finally being punished for their ‘crimes’ and others believed that the Church’s silence was a mistake.”

Saved by a Sow’s Stomach

Having faced down Swiss banks and Austrian presidents in attempts to gain reparations settlements, Dr. Singer is no stranger to tough diplomacy. But he has also seen his fair share of negotiations that were not decided by tactics taught in any foreign affairs program.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who Dr. Singer said took solace in being “spät geboren” (born too late to have actively participated in the Holocaust), in addition to being a statesman, was an amateur cook. He took special pride in dishes from his native Rhineland-Palatinate region, especially saumagen, a type of sausage produced from a pig’s stomach, and even gave Dr. Singer a cookbook he produced with a picture of this dish on the cover.

“Kohl was a grubyan, very rough around the edges; there’s no other way to describe him. He was not an anti-Semite, but he was totally clueless about Jews.”

A series of negotiations and additional large payments had been initiated, largely by international outrage over the chancellor’s having brought an unknowing President Ronald Reagan to pay tribute at Bitburg cemetery, the resting place of several SS troops. Yet, in the late 1980s these talks had reached an impasse, only to be saved by the saumagen.

“The last settlement talks were on December 24, and he wasn’t giving in, but he started saying that he has to go home to cook the saumagen, because he’s the only one that really knows how to do it. In the end, he got up and said, ‘I need to go home, just take your $32 million.’ I walked out thinking to myself, how I am going to explain this to everyone? It’s too good of a story!”

Disaster Averted

Another stroke of good fortune, plus fiscal conservatism and advice from a tzaddik, saved billions collected by the Claims Conference, the central office representing world Jewry in negotiating for compensation and restitution for victims of Nazi persecution.

“The board wanted to invest the money that was put away for the survivors, and someone recommended that we use a fund that he said could get us a 15 percent return. You might recognize the name of the person who ran the fund — Bernie Madoff.”

Not long after the offer was made, Dr. Singer discussed the matter with the Pnei Menachem, Harav Pinchas Menachem Alter, zy”a, the Gerrer Rebbe.

“[The Pnei Menachem’s] response was brilliant. He asked me, ‘What’s going to be with the other 85 percent?’”

Using his veto power as the conference’s president, Dr. Singer shot down the idea, to the incredulity of fellow World Jewish Congress leaders, Edgar Bronfman, Ronald Lauder and others on the board.

“I promise you, I had no idea who Madoff was. I just thought you shouldn’t give any one guy all this money; we should keep it in each country for the survivors to draw on. I said, ‘We’re not bankers and I don’t care how smart all you geniuses are, but I’m voting against this.’ They all thought I was crazy.”

Reparations for Thought

In Paris in 2006, prior to a session of the executive council of the WJC, Pierre Besnainou of the European Jewish Congress (R) shakes hands with the rector of the Muslim Institute of the Paris Mosque and president of the French Council of the Muslim Religion Dalil Boubakeur (L) as Dr. Singer looks on. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Decades of similar dealings and negotiations produced no shortage of tales, victories and scandals, but Dr. Singer grows serious when he insists that the financial gains were only a means to what he sees as a woefully inadequate end.

“What was my restitution struggle about, was it about money?” he asks rhetorically. “I’m an educator. It’s not that I want to educate the Poles or the Swiss or the Germans or the Austrians. It’s critical because it prepared the Jews to be angry about the Holocaust. Today, the immenseness of the Holocaust is forgotten. The proximity to the Holocaust is distancing itself; 80 years is a long time. It’s like talking about the pogroms of 1905. It also prepared non-Jews to understand the enormity of what happened — but that was secondary.”

Dr. Singer says that the reticence with which many countries met restitution and reparations efforts only helped to emphasis his goal of using payments as a highly public form of Holocaust education.

“The Swiss don’t pay anything to anybody. It’s the only country I ever visited where the hotel desk asked me how many pieces of soap I used. If they’re paying $5 billion, they must have done something really terrible. An Austrian is the biggest cheapskate in the world. He knows if he’s paying $18 billion that he committed crimes for $180 billion … My purpose was to show the world — and especially the Jewish world — this story in all of its horror.”

From behind his simple desk in a shared office at Touro College’s mid-Manhattan campus, Dr. Singer remains engaged in many of the same efforts that he led when at the head of some of the largest organizations in the Jewish institutional world. Yet, now calls to dignitaries are interspersed with questions from students and from fellow staff. Only a few months ago he viewed the Vatican archives, a trip that had to be scheduled between semesters.

After decades at the helm, he closes our interview with words of caution addressed to those who have stepped into his shoes as the official captains of the Jewish People’s public struggles.

“Our strength will never come from numbers, so you have to know how to deal with what you have. I played the hands dealt as best I could. If I came to a right-wing anti-Semite, I knew I could still get him to do something to help Soviet Jews because it was a slap to communism. If I went to someone on the left who was anti-Israel, I got him to do something for Holocaust memory, but it’s a lost art. We can’t believe our own propaganda. Unlike what some may think, we’re not so rich or so powerful, so we have to be clever and we have to be pragmatic.”