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Bernard Cantor

CANTOR, BERNARD (1892–1920) U.S. Reform rabbi murdered by Soviet troops. Cantor was born in Buffalo, New York, and earned both his B.A. (1914) and M.A. (1915) at the University of Cincinnati. He remained at the university as a teaching assistant in philosophy while studying for the rabbinate at *Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained in 1916. His first pulpit was at Congregation Rodef Shalom in Wabash, Indiana, while completing his studies at HUC. Following ordination, he became rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Wichita, Kansas, where he also organized the city's Legal Aid Bureau. After one year in Wichita, he moved to New York City in 1917 to assume the position of associate rabbi at Stephen S. *Wise's Free Synagogue. Ignoring risks to his own health, in the dual role of social worker-clergyman, Cantor headed up the temple's efforts to ease the suffering of Jews and Gentiles alike from the deadly influenza epidemic that was ravaging the city that year.

In 1918, Cantor became the rabbi of the Flushing branch of the Free Synagogue. In 1920, the Joint Distribution Committee issued a call for volunteers to organize relief programs for 600,000 Jewish victims of post-World War I antisemitism in Eastern Europe. Cantor did not hesitate. At a service in his honor at the Free Synagogue on the eve of his departure, Cantor said, "In consonance with our traditions, we again go forth to serve our suffering people, and gladly do I go, and I rejoice at the opportunity." Cantor, representing the *Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and Dr. Israel *Friedlander, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, led the JDC's Overseas Unit Number 1 on a successful mission to Poland. In July 1920, they set off for the Ukraine on the second stage of their undertaking. Cantor had an unsettling premonition: "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 a letter to his fiancée.

On July 10, Cantor and Friedlander were shot dead in mysterious circumstances while traveling on the road to Kiev. Initial reports indicated that the perpetrators were bandits; it subsequently turned out, however, that the killers were Soviet troops. After much protest and pressure from the United States, the Soviet government in Moscow admitted their mistake and offered an apology for the murders. But no details were forthcoming – not even concerning the whereabouts of the martyrs' remains.

On September 9, 1920, thousands of grieving mourners gathered in New York City's Carnegie Hall for a memorial service in honor of both men. Generations later, in 2000, a JDC-sponsored fact-finding trip finally discovered Cantor's and Friedlander's graves in a remote Jewish cemetery. The two stones bore their names with identical Hebrew inscriptions: "Emissary of American Jewry who fell sanctifying God's name. July 10, 1920."

On August 27, 2003, with American and Israeli descendants of Cantor and Friedlander in attendance, a commemoration ceremony was held in Yarmolintz, Ukraine, to dedicate a new memorial denoting their final resting places.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.