Catholic SJU to hold Jewish Heritage Day

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When they asked Eli Weisel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to address the...

By Jennifer Warren

In its search for a keynote speaker, the organizers of St. John’s University’s Jewish Heritage Day, experienced something akin to the travails of Goldilocks.

When they asked Eli Weisel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to address the event, he canceled at the last minute — too cold. When they asked Joe Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut and recent vice president candidate, to speak, his price was $20,000 — too hot.

But then they found Walter Wolff, a German-born author and Holocaust survivor who recently summed up his opinion of Jewish religion in America: “Unfortunat­ely, we have an extreme right and an extreme left. I prefer to be in the middle.”

On March 6, with Wolff as its speaker, St. John’s University in Jamaica, the largest Roman Catholic university in the country, will hold its first annual Jewish Heritage Day to celebrate the school’s rich history of Jewish alumni and their traditions.

“We are a Catholic institution, but the active practice of faith is what we promote,” said Jody Fisher, a St. John’s spokesman involved in planning the event.

In addition to Wolff’s discussion: “From Old World to New: Continuance of the Jewish Tradition,” the program will host the consul general of Israel, Alon Pinkus; local elected officials, including Borough President Claire Shulman and Councilman Morton Povman (D-Kew Gardens); an all-day Judaica exhibition; book signing; and glatt kosher refreshments.

The basis of Wolff’s keynote address, he said, is the ancient tenet, “love thy neighbor as you would love thyself. It’s the most importance sentence in the Bible and the Torah.”

Wolff’s own history as a Jewish man in Nazi Germany and his survival during the Holocaust is the result of that neighborly love.

In November 1938 Wolff was arrested in Germany during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazis broke thousands of store windows, burned synagogues and killed scores of Jews across the country. Later he was taken to Dachua, the concentration camp outside Munich, where “by a miracle I got out.” The only country available to Wolff and his family at the time was Italy, where in 1943 they lived in the town Casale Monserrato as “internati liberti,” or free interns.

“We had to go to the police everyday. We had curfews,” he said, but then the local government was instructed by Mussolini’s fascist government that all foreigners were to be arrested. Things quickly changed.

“One night our local policeman came to our little home there and knocked on our door. He said, ‘Listen very carefully to what I am going to say. I have orders. Tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock I am going to be here to arrest you and turn you over to the Germans.’”

“Why did he do it?” Wolf asked to answer his own question. “He followed the sentence ‘love thy neighbor.’”

Wolff, his mother and his brother heeded the officer’s advice and with the help of their landlord escaped into the mountains where they were helped by still more friends. “Everybody took a chance to hide us,” he said.

This year’s Jewish Heritage Day grew out of the university’s practice of celebrating other cultures. After sponsoring an Irish cultural day, African-American month, and an Italian heritage event, the day to honor its Jewish students and alumni was inevitable, organizers say.

Harold Novak, 82, a Jewish St. John’s alumnus who graduated in June 1941 and now lives in Florida, said the school was “unbelievab­le.” At the time he attended, the school was located at 99 Schermerhorn St. in Brooklyn. “The school was — if not heavily Jewish — there were a lot,” he said.

Novok’s dean was a priest. He attended classes with nuns and brothers. But the Catholicism at the University was never an issue for him. The only religion Novok practiced at the time, he said, was his devout allegiance to the university’s basketball team.

“We used to go to the games at Madison Square Garden,” he said. “On the team there were a couple of Jewish boys, a couple of Catholic boys, a couple of Protestant boys, but they were all boys from St. John’s and that’s what mattered to them.”

The event is from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Marillac Hall.

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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