February 26, 2017

American Jewry's Response to the Holocaust: Some Reflections from the Last Eyewitnesses

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Six decades after the Holocaust, American Jewish leaders’ response to the Nazi genocide is still very much on the minds of many in the community.  Some Jews involved in protests over human rights abuses in Sudan have said they are trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of their parents’ generation.  Recent newspaper articles marking the anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Jewry protest movement have cited disappointment over the Jewish leadership’s response to the Holocaust as an impetus for the activists.

The men who led the major Jewish organizations of that era have long since passed away, as have most of the dissidents who tried to stir a more activist response. Two of the last living eyewitnesses to that chapter in Jewish history still recall those events with passion and insight.

One is Benzion Netanyahu, who during the 1940s served as executive director of  the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionists.  Today a prominent historian of medieval Spanish Jewry and father of Israel’s finance minister, Netanyahu, 93, is widely regarded as the elder statesman of the Zionist right.

In an editorial in the New York-based Revisionist journal Zionews in 1944, Netanyahu sharply challenged Jewish leaders:  “They cannot claim, with a clear conscience, to have done everything within their power to save those condemned people,” he wrote.  “They have been too cautious, too appeasing, and too ready to swallow the meaningless statements of sympathy that were issued from high places.”

The passage of time has not altered his analysis.  “Most American Jews would have supported an activist response to the news of the massacres in Europe,” Prof. Netanyahu told me in a recent interview. “When our small organization held rallies or placed advertisements in the newspapers, we received a very strong, enthusiastic response from the grassroots.  But the major Jewish groups, which had the funds and the ability to organize nationwide protests, did not do so--they were afraid of risking their positions, afraid to seem too controversial.”

Netanyahu is not the only Israeli elder statesman who speaks of American Jewry and the Holocaust from personal experience.  Another is Saadia Gelb, now 90, a lifelong Labor Zionist and kibbutz movement activist who has lived at Kibbutz Kfar Blum since 1947.  Gelb has a unique perspective, because during the 1940s, when he was active with the U.S. Labor Zionists, he was also a rabbinical student in New York under Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader of that era. 

In a telephone interview with Gelb, I asked him to what extent Wise spoke to the students about the plight of European Jewry, when he met with them each week. “He always told us the latest news he had received from Europe and about his latest meetings with governments officials and others,” Gelb recalled.  “On one occasion, Rabbi Wise was telling us, very proudly, about his access to President Roosevelt-- how the president had promised him, ‘you can call on me any time, if not through the front door, then certainly through the back door.’  So I went up to Rabbi Wise afterwards and said to him, ‘That’s the whole problem--he’ll keep you at the back door, he’ll con you with his soapy words, but he won’t do anything to help the Jews in Europe.’ ”

Gelb still speaks of Wise with considerable affection.  He deeply admires Wise’s oratorical abilities, intellectual prowess, and tireless commitment to the causes he embraced.  But he feels Wise’s political judgment was clouded by his attachment to FDR.

Gelb noted that criticism of the Jewish leadership’s record cut across party lines, both then and now.  Just as Netanyahu’s Revisionist magazine, Zionews, took issue with the American Jewish response to news of the Holocaust in the 1940s, Furrows, a magazine edited by Gelb and other young Labor Zionists, likewise denounced what it called “the black record of inactivity of the American Jewish community.” 

In the academic world, too, there is continuing interest in the activities of Wise and other Jewish leaders during the war.  I recently chaired a session on U.S. Jews and the Holocaust at a conference sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society and held at the Library of Congress.  One of our panelists, Dr. Zohar Segev of Haifa University, said that Wise and Nahum Goldmann, as co-chairs of the World Jewish Congress, “worked actively to tone down any Jewish criticism of the Roosevelt administration regarding the Holocaust and Palestine.” 

Segev said they feared that aggressive protests would stimulate domestic antisemitism and undermine Jewish leaders’ relationship with the Roosevelt administration.  He also said they were concerned that more activist elements, such as Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, might usurp their positions of leadership in the community.

Another of the speakers, Prof. Mark Raider of SUNY-Albany, was less critical of Wise, although he found Wise’s response to the Shoah to be “cautious and ineffective.” He mentioned  Wise’s advanced age, declining health, and involvement in a wide range of social and political causes as factors that hampered his effectiveness with regard to the plight of Europe’s Jews.

Professor David S. Wyman, author of the 1984 best-seller, The Abandonment of the Jews, says that as a Christian, he has always found the issue of American Jewry and the Holocaust “among the most complex and heartbreaking topics in my research.”  ‘Abandonment’ dealt primarily with the response of the Roosevelt administration to the Nazi genocide, but also covered attempts by both Jewish establishment groups and Jewish activists to influence U.S. policy.  “The slow response of many Jewish leaders, and the amount of time they spent fighting among themselves, is astonishing in retrospect.  Going through the archives of the Jewish organizations is a journey through a landscape of constant rivalry and fighting,”  Wyman says. “It is a subject that requires additional, careful research by historians.”

Three new books are likely to keep these issues in the spotlight during the coming year.  Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, by Prof. Laurel Leff, to be published by Cambridge University Press, analyzes the New York Times’s coverage of the Nazi genocide, including complaints by American Jews at the time over the Times’ coverage.  Prof. Joseph Ansell’s new biography of the artist Arthur Szyk, to be published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, will deal in part with Syzk’s prominent role in the Bergson group, which often clashed with the Jewish leadership over Holocaust policy.  Dr. Alex Grobman’s Battling for Souls, published by Ktav, sheds new light on the efforts by the Vaad Hatzala, an American Orthodox group, to aid the Jews in Europe.

Are such historical questions relevant today?  “Absolutely,” says former U.S. Congressman Stephen Solarz, one of the founders of the International Crisis Group, which encourages more activist responses to crises such as the ongoing massacres in the Sudan.  “Learning from the mistakes of the past,” he says “is the only way to ensure that they will not be repeated.”

(Published exclusively in Midstream, March-April 2005)

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