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Robinson, Jacob

(1889–1977), jurist, politician, diplomat, and Holocaust researcher. One of seven brothers, Jacob (Ya‘akov ben David) Robinson was born in Seirijai (Serej) into a family with a rabbinic tradition reaching back to Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (seventeenth century). Although Orthodox, Robinson’s father, David, was an early Zionist.

Robinson received his traditional Jewish education from a private tutor in Wistyten (Vishtinets). From 1904 on, however, he attended secondary school in Suvalki, and in many respects this decisive step toward secularization was influenced by his prominent uncle, pathologist Efim (Efraim) Semenovich London. Robinson’s uncle, one of Russia’s first Jewish medical researchers, was codirector of the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Saint Petersburg, scientific editor of the popular Russian journal Niva, and a regular guest of Tsar Nicholas II.

Between 1910 and 1914, Robinson studied law at Warsaw University, graduating with the equivalent of a doctorate. Between 1914 and 1915, he served in the Russian army. Taken prisoner in 1915, Robinson spent three years in German POW camps before settling in Virbalis (independent Lithuania), where he founded a Hebrew secondary school in 1919 and directed it until 1922. Having learned Lithuanian, Robinson moved to Kaunas, practiced as a lawyer, and was elected to the Second Lithuanian Parliament in 1923 as one of seven Jewish MPs. Coeditor of the Kaunas Yiddish newspaper Di idishe shtime, Robinson was the leader of both the Jewish faction and the entire Minorities Bloc in parliament after Shimshon Rosenboim’s emigration and until a coup d’état abolished the parliamentary regime in December 1926.

The Minorities Treaties formulated in Versailles in 1919 had made the question of minority rights in Eastern Europe an international issue. Robinson’s commitment to defending and promoting Jewish interests was, therefore, not restricted to Lithuania. He represented Jewish minorities at the European Nationalities Congress (1925–1933), counseled the Committee of Jewish Delegations, took part in attempts to establish a World Jewish Congress (1927–1936), and came up with the idea of the Bernheim Petition (1933). At the same time, his publications on Lithuanian and international law established his reputation as a scholar and jurist. He represented Lithuania on the German–Lithuanian Permanent Conciliation Committee (1931) and in the Memel case before the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague (1932).

After official Jewish representation was prohibited in Lithuania in 1927, Robinson organized an informal, “secret” group to defend Jewish interests. With the outbreak of World War II and the incorporation of Vilna into Lithuania, this committee played a leading role in receiving Jewish refugees from Poland and integrating Vilna’s Jewish population into Lithuania.

Robinson left Lithuania in May 1940 and reached the United States with his family in December of that year. In February 1941, he founded the Institute of Jewish Affairs (IJA), the research arm of the American and World Jewish Congress, which he directed until 1947. The IJA’s main topics of research were the fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe; the question of reparation and indemnification; the legal basis for prosecuting Nazi criminals; and the promotion of the concept of human rights as a means for defending the rights of Jews. In 1945, Robinson advised U.S. Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson in Nuremberg and codrafted the “Jewish case” presented to the International Military Tribunal. In 1946, he counseled chief prosecutor Telford Taylor on the Flick Case in Nuremberg.

That same year, Robinson worked for the United Nations as an expert consultant to the team creating and establishing the Commission of Human Rights. In 1947 Robinson became legal adviser to the Jewish Agency at the UN and from 1948 to 1957 he was legal counsel to Israel’s delegation. Thanks to his previous experience, Robinson was instrumental in developing the Israeli diplomatic service. In 1952, he drafted the reparations agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). His brother Nehemiah (1898–1964) was also a brilliant lawyer. He was Jacob’s close partner and successor as director of the IJA, and drafted the agreements between the FRG and the Claims Conference as well as the FRG’s Indemnification Law.

In 1957, Robinson became the legal adviser for the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, helped establish the research branch of Yad Vashem, and coordinated Holocaust research between several research Institutes (among them YIVO, Yad Vashem, Leo Baeck Institute, Wiener Library, and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine). Robinson also coordinated the collaboration of these and other Jewish institutions with the prosecution in trials against Nazi criminals. He was also the legal mind behind the prosecution at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem (1960–1961), serving as special assistant to the attorney general. Robinson edited the Holocaust section for the Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) and several volumes of documentary sources of the Holocaust. He also published several important bibliographic works on international law.

Suggested Reading

Omry K. Feuereisen, “Geschichtserfahrung und Völkerrecht: Jacob Robinson und die Gründung des Institute of Jewish Affairs,” Leipziger Beiträge zur jüdischen Geschichte und Kultur 2 (2004): 307–327; Maurice Perlzweig, “Robinson, Jacob,” in Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 14, col. 207 (Jerusalem and New York, 1971); Shabtai Rosenne, “Jacob Robinson, 28 November 1889–24 October 1977,” in An International Law Miscellany, pp. 831–843 (Dordrecht, Neth., and Boston, 1993), originally published as “Jacob Robinson: In Memoriam,” Israel Law Review 13.3 (1978): 287–297.