The myth of silence

The myth of silence

A historian challenges the critics who say American Jews ignored the Shoa

Historian Hasia Diner says she found a “vast mountain range of material” refuting the claim that American Jews made no efforts to engage with the Holocaust.
Historian Hasia Diner says she found a “vast mountain range of material” refuting the claim that American Jews made no efforts to engage with the Holocaust.

Hasia Diner says that all her other books were written out of a fascination with their subject matter. Her latest book is different, however: She says she wrote it out of frustration.

As a historian of American-Jewish life, Diner had long bristled over what had become the standard version of American Jewry’s attitude toward the Holocaust. Articles, books, and university courses all insisted that American Jews, for decades after the Second World War, turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and those who had survived it — and that only after the 1967 Six-Day War did they begin to give it a central place in ritual, politics, and memory.

On the contrary, Diner insists: Jewish individuals and institutions demonstrated intense concern with what had happened in Europe, relocating and caring for survivors and commemorating those who were lost. Far from ignoring or suppressing discussion of the Holocaust, American Jews confronted it early on. Nevertheless, the “myth of silence” took hold, driven by critics from within the Jewish community.

The fruits of her frustration are found in her latest book, We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962 (New York University Press), which won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies.

Diner will discuss her book and its argument at Kean University on Thursday, April 15. Her talk is part of the university’s 12th Annual Jewish Studies Lecture Series, organized by its Jewish Studies Program under the leadership of Dr. Dennis Klein.

Diner, the director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, holds a joint appointment as a professor in NYU’s departments of history and Hebrew and Judaic studies. Her other books include Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (2001) and The Jews of the United States: 1654-2000 (2004). She is married to Steven J. Diner, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark.

In a recent e-mail, she answered questions from NJ Jewish News.

NJJN: Were members of your family or close circle involved in the Holocaust?

Diner: My stepmother — since I was three years old — was a survivor. My father, in the United States since the 1920s, lost his entire family, all of whom had remained in the Ukraine.

NJJN: When did you begin working on this latest book, and what brought the subject to a head for you? And why up to 1962?

Diner: I was shocked by the unanimity of the historical scholarship which claimed that American Jews made no efforts to engage with the Holocaust in the post-World War II period, but they — the historians — offered their sweeping remarks with no evidence and only the thinnest of research. A statement of such magnitude needed to have been embedded in a dense trove of archival and other primary research.

I had hoped to [cover] up to 1967, since all those other scholars claimed — and again with no evidence — that “suddenly” in 1967, after the [Six-Day War], American Jews began to come to terms with the Holocaust. Some of the historians acknowledged that the Eichmann trial may have been an earlier moment; 1962 signaled the end of the Eichmann trial, so that seemed appropriate. But I could have [continued] to 1967; I had a mountain of material on the years from 1962 to 1967.

NJJN: Where did you find your material?

Diner: I looked to…the published works created by American Jews in this time period —books, magazines, pedagogical material, newspapers, bulletins of organizations, and the like. I also turned to the vast amount of archival material, looking at the deliberations of organizations, letters to public officials, programs of various community institutions, sermons. I saw a vast, vast mountain range of material. I found the Holocaust everywhere; I am confident that it exists in many places I could not (or did not) study.

NJJN: You point out that there was always an intense awareness of the Holocaust among American Jews. Why do think so many survivors have spoken out only in recent years?

Diner: I do not agree with that conclusion at all. The postwar record is replete with evidence about survivors speaking in a variety of settings. The nature of their testimony has changed. It has become more organized and more systematic, but it is not new.

NJJN: How does time shift the historical perspective of such events? Is it ever too soon to seek a perspective?

Diner: Perspectives change. Naturally the way American Jews — survivors included since they became Americans — talked about the Holocaust, engaged with it, and memorialized it evolved over time. In the postwar period their behavior reflected the contexts of their times. Times changed and, as such, so did the memorial project.

NJJN: Are there aspects of the Holocaust that are still hidden or only partially known and understood?

Diner: For sure. Only since the 1990s have scholars begun to peek into the Soviet archives. There is a vast array of material never seen before and it is only now being incorporated into the history. A new generation of historians will ask new questions reflecting changing themes in intellectual life, and those new questions will lead scholars to look for new kinds of sources, as well as looking differently at familiar ones.

Jewish studies

Including the speakers this spring, Kean University’s Jewish Studies Program will have brought 60 guest speakers to the campus in the 12 years it has hosted the Annual Jewish Studies Lecture Series. The program is designed to stimulate multi-disciplinary inquiry into Jewish cultural interaction with the larger world. The program — and its public events — is financed in part by donations from supporters. To learn more, contact program head Dr. Dennis Klein at 908-7373-4256 or or visit

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