In her book, We Remember With Reverence and Love, Hasia Diner does a fine job of supporting her thesis that, contrary to popular conceptions, American Jews did not ignore the Holocaust or its survivors in its immediate aftermath. However, this is hardly the full story.
As she acknowledged in a talk at New York University soon after the book’s publication, her examination of materials was wide but hardly comprehensive. Indeed, there were organizations and synagogues that held annual commemorative services and helped the survivors in their midst in the wake of liberation, but they were not the norm.
Reasons for this are many and varied. In the immediate postwar years, America concentrated its energy into rebuilding the economy. Americans mourned their war-dead and set about caring for their wounded soldiers. Healthy veterans returned to marry, start families, and build homes and businesses. There was an attitude of, “Don’t look back, look ahead.”
This attitude pertained also to the Jewish refugees who began to trickle into this country. The immigration laws that had barred so many European Jews entry into the United States during the Nazi era were still in effect. It would take nearly a decade before all the refugees in Displaced Persons camps who wanted to emigrate here would be allowed to do so.
Moreover, many American Jews were unable to confront the Holocaust. Many were wracked with guilt. Some had done all they could to help their families escape. Others did little or nothing, often because they felt or actually were helpless. Anti-Semitism was rife. Neighborhoods, schools, hotels, and country clubs were restricted against Jews.
The new documentary Against the Tide is a provocative look at American Jewry’s general lack of response to the pleas of the “Bergson group,” activists who were fervently trying to save Europe’s Jews. The Holocaust Council of MetroWest showed it last month as part of our “Real to Reel” film series, in conjunction with this year’s “From Memory to History” exhibit, which included a display of letters between a local family and their European relatives begging for help. To their credit, Ruth Sherman’s family went to heroic measures but was unable to get her family out of Europe. Too many Americans did too little. This includes American-Jewish leaders who, motivated by politics, naivete, or cowardice, abandoned their suffering brethren.
Another film we showed was About Face, the story of the 10,000 Jews who escaped Nazi Europe and served in the Allied armies. One can only wonder how many lives would have been spared if the rest of Europe’s able-bodied, multilingual Jews had been allowed to immigrate in order to fight the Nazis. One must also wonder if the genocides that followed the Holocaust would have happened had the lessons of the Holocaust been taught in the first decades after the war.
The Holocaust Council of MetroWest regularly takes part in planning and facilitating several local annual commemorations. Newark is in its 23rd year. Another, one of first interfaith commemorations, is well into its third decade. Hundreds upon hundreds of people attend these. However, the Holocaust ended in 1945, 65 years ago.
Nowadays, the Holocaust Council can barely keep up with the demand for its trained survivors to speak at schools, synagogues, and churches. But where was that demand 20 years ago? Ask survivors and they will say, “Nobody wanted to hear.” Remember that Otto Frank, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel found it nearly impossible to get Anne’s diary and their memoirs published. How many other compelling memoirs and diaries by less resilient and resourceful authors went unpublished?
It wasn’t until the 1960s and the Eichmann Trial, followed by the popular television miniseries Holocaust in 1978, that things began to change. “Before we were called ‘de greenehs,’ the refugees,” remembers Ukrainian survivor Ulke Sommer. “When we gave money to help build the Holocaust centers and museums, we became ‘survivors.’”
The Jewish community owes a great debt of gratitude to survivors, who were in large part responsible for building up the institutions of yeshivas and day schools. They understood full well that the scholarship the Nazis destroyed will never be regained. Their attempts to rebuild this vital part of Jewish communal life and learning are a refusal to grant Hitler posthumous victories.
The Holocaust museums, memorials, and centers of learning that have proliferated throughout the world are testaments to the generosity of survivors. They are devoted to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive in the face of willful ignorance, obscene denial, and state-sponsored policies dedicated to the eradication of Israel in particular and Jews in general.
They remember full well and with great dolor the times before during and after the war when the world was silent. Elie Wiesel’s Night was originally written in Yiddish and titled, Und die Welt Hot Geshwiggen — And the World Was Silent. The myth of silence is not entirely a myth.