What Jews remember about founding of U.N.

As a high school junior studying world history, nothing could have thrilled Nate Ratner more than the chance to rub shoulders with world leaders at the founding of the United Nations in 1945.

As an usher at the San Francisco event, Ratner got that chance, proudly shuttling teletype messages to such luminaries as Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. and Texas Sen. Tom Connally.

But the founding of the world body had additional, and very personal, significance for the Jewish teen. He believed the United Nations could be the bridge to his aunt and uncle in Bialystok, Poland, who hadn't been heard from in some four years.

"I thought maybe through the United Nations we would be able to find out where they are," recalls Ratner, a semi-retired plumbing contractor in San Francisco. "I have a very, very strong feeling for family" and not hearing from the Polish relatives for so long "really knocked me over cold."

Fifty years ago, as the San Francisco conference approached, people everywhere had dreams of what the United Nations would mean for the world.

In this country, war-weary Americans spoke in their living rooms of the hope that a United Nations could prevent another war like the one that had just cost 50 million lives. High school history classes studied the strengths and weaknesses of the League of Nations.

Rabbis and other religious leaders sermonized on the United Nations' importance as a means of perpetuating the ideals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had recently died.

And as word of the Holocaust began to leak out, many Jews shared the feelings of Donald Kahen, a San Francisco attorney and native of the city.

"We were very grateful that the war had or was ending, and hoped that would mean something for the European Jews," Kahen says. "Our thoughts were on world peace and that somehow world peace would help Jews."

Like Ratner, Kahen got the chance to bring his teenage enthusiasm to the international negotiations in the Civic Center, where delegates met to define the terms of the nascent forum. Then a student at Roosevelt Junior High School, Kahen served as a guide for an Australian delegate, a brigadier, showing him city sites when meetings weren't in session.

"It felt like we were sort of the center of the coming world, that what occurred in San Francisco would affect the future," Kahen says.

In many ways, the United Nations did shape the post-war world, though the extent to which it has succeeded in maintaining international peace and security is a source of debate.

The United Nations' record on Israel, of course, has also garnered mixed reviews. Observers say it got off to a promising start, legitimizing Israel's existence in 1949, and in 1953, welcoming Israeli diplomat Abba Eban as deputy chairman of the U.N. General Assembly.

Over the decades, however, Jewish disenchantment with the world body grew as it passed scores of anti-Israel resolutions, equating Zionism with racism in 1975 and inviting a gun-toting Yasser Arafat to speak.

Morris Abram, a former ambassador to the United Nations who recently visited the Bay Area to offer a Jewish perspective on the world body, has called the United Nations "the most dangerous and virulent form of anti-Semitism in the world today."

Still, those who witnessed the United Nations' founding say its mixed record on Israel and Jewish concerns does not eclipse the importance of its existence or the thrill of its birth.

In the spring of 1945, San Francisco buzzed with excitement as dignitaries hammered out the fate of the world in weeks of lengthy negotiating sessions. Journalists, including a 27-year-old John F. Kennedy, swarmed for scoops, and socialites clamored to see and be seen with the celebrities who filled the city's poshest hotels and danced and toasted at all-night balls.

The excitement started for 14-year-old Armand Magid when his mother and grandmother took him and his sister to meet their cousin Sol Bloom at the Fairmont Hotel. Bloom, a New York congressman and chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was the only Jewish member of the eight-person American delegation to the conference.

"We were in the lobby when the limos drove up and he and the other delegates got out," says Magid, now 64 and a head of the history department at San Francisco's Lincoln High School. "I had heard about this guy all my life from my mother and grandmother. I sort of worshipped the guy and here I was in the Fairmont Hotel. I was just overwhelmed by the fact."

Not only did Magid get to shake his illustrious cousin's hand, the congressman asked the young man to assist him with various tasks in his Fairmont suite.

"I had a chance to go down to his place every day and open mail and do errands," Magid recalls. "The principal of [my] school said it was `OK.'"

The Fairmont ended up providing some good star-gazing for Magid, who found himself riding up and down the elevators with such political heavyweights as South African Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts and Secretary of State Stettinius. At the time, of course, the teenager didn't fully grasp the stature of his well-dressed elevator companions.

"I would go home and say, `Gee, I was in the elevator with so and so,'" Magid recalls. My parents would say, `That's an important guy.' I would say, `Yeah? 'Later on as I studied these people in history in college, I was in awe."

In fact, Magid's cousin Sol Bloom was among those calling for a united Jewish presence in San Francisco to win support for a Jewish state in Palestine in accordance with the Balfour Declaration.

Also key to getting Jewish groups to the conference, according to Eliahu Elath's book "Zionism at the United Nations: A Diary of the First Days," was Harold E. Stassen, the former Minnesota governor and future perennial presidential candidate. Stassen is now an octogenarian lawyer in Minneapolis and the only living signer of the U.N. charter.

"The debate was over whether or not organizations like the Jewish Agency would have official status," and thus be able to speak alongside nations, says local political consultant John Rothmann. "They were given official status and that was because of heavy lobbying on behalf of the Jewish causes" by those such as Stassen.

Jewish organizations on hand in San Francisco included B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress.

Jewish socialist groups attended. Yiddish groups were there. Also present were representatives of various Zionist parties –Mizrahi, a religious Zionist party; Poalei Zion, a labor Zionist party; and liberal Zionists.

Even anti-Zionist Jewish organizations and individuals joined the mix.

Many Jews, however, came to San Francisco identified not so much as Jews but as Americans with a stake in the world's future.

One such person was Carolene Marks, then a State Department employee and now an economist and wife of State Sen. Milton Marks.

Marks knew she was headed to a major event long before she left Washington, D.C., for San Francisco. She realized just how big it was, however, when her train took a more circuitous route to the West Coast than she had expected.

"They were trying to fool anybody who might be trying to bomb [the train] from the air," explains Marks, who worked as an archivist at the conference and is a member of the committee planning the ongoing United Nations' 50th anniversary celebrations here. "Many of the delegates were on that train."

Ratner sensed the importance of the United Nations' founding beforehand, too. While reading the Bible some weeks prior to the conference, he came across Isaiah 2:4, "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

Inspired, he wrote to then-San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham suggesting that a plaque bearing the biblical phrase be displayed on the side of the Veteran's Building where the U.N. Charter was later signed.

Although no plaque was erected here, someone else must have had the same idea. The Isaiah passage is now engraved on the front of the United Nations.