Hasia R. Diner : Postwar American Jews did not ignore the Holocaust

Roundup: Talking About History

[Hasia R. Diner is a professor of history and Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. This essay is adapted from her book We Remember With Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962, published this month by New York University Press.]

...In the years following the end of World War II, which witnessed the destruction of one-third of the Jewish people, American Jews found numerous times and places to publicly express their anguish over that horrendous reality. They devoted much of their communal rhetoric and institutional history to contemplating its effect on their lives and thinking about how it might shape them in the years to come. In the decade and a half following the war until the early 1960s, culminating in the capture, trial, and arrest of Adolf Eichmann, the gruesome details of the mass murder of so many Europeans infused every sector of American Jewry. The vast repertoire of projects and texts created by postwar American Jews that incorporated the brutal realities of the Holocaust on one level ought not to be considered particularly surprising or noteworthy. Since ancient times, human beings have memorialized tragedies and considered themselves obliged to keep alive the memory of their kin and compatriots who suffered at the hands of enemies. Memorializing tragedy underlay the Jewish tradition. At the broadest level, the Jewish women and men of America understood their history as a series of catastrophic events.

However universal the urge to memorialize communal catastrophes, and however deeply embedded such collective remembering in Jewish culture, American Jews in the years after World War II, according to most later observers, behaved very differently when it came to the brutal deaths of the six million Jews. A very different story has been told and has become accepted as the truth. Scholarship about postwar American and American Jewish history takes a decidedly unified view, asserting with utter certainty that American Jewry made little of the Holocaust, pushing it to the hidden corners and, indeed, under the rug of their communal lives.

Nearly every historian, literary scholar, and cultural critic who has commented on the Jews of America in this era and their relationship to the Holocaust maintains that America's Jews had little interest in thinking about, engaging with, and memorializing the Holocaust. That until the 1960s — as a result of either the Eichmann trial or the Six-Day War, in June 1967 — the story of Europe's destroyed Jews lay hidden through deliberate forgetting. In the affluence of the postwar period, with the 1950s its epicenter, American Jews had nothing to gain from invoking the Holocaust.

Leon Jick, a scholar of American Jewish history, opened that historical narrative in a 1981 article, "The Holocaust: Its Use and Abuse within the American Public," declaring that American Jewry "collaborated or at least acquiesced in [a] campaign to make the world forget." In 1992, Edward S. Shapiro asserted in one of the first full-length scholarly books on postwar American Jewry — A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press) — that, in the 1950s, "there was little public discussion among Jews regarding the fate of European Jewry." Gerald Sorin claimed in a widely used overview of American Jewish history, Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), that a "conspiracy of silence" reigned. The Holocaust literary scholar Alan Mintz declared — in Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (University of Washington Press, 2001) — that memories of the Holocaust "were not welcome guests." And in 2004, in his award-winning book American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press), Jonathan D. Sarna postulated that in the period up to 1967, the Holocaust "incubated" below the surface of American Jewish public life....

Nearly all scholars who have written about American Jews in this period posited a causal connection between the cold war and American Jewry's avoidance of the Holocaust. With the birth of intense Soviet-American rivalry, when the Federal Republic of Germany became an ally of the United States as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, American Jews refused to draw attention to the misdeeds of their nation's new best friend. The hysteria that reigned over the specter of domestic Communists and their purported infiltration of American institutions further suppressed any thoughts American Jews might have had about keeping alive the memory of what the Germans had done. And to a person, scholars and the larger Jewish public accepted as true the proposition that Israel — in bringing Eichmann to trial and in winning the Six-Day War — did much to bring the narrative of the Holocaust into prominence....

To put it quite bluntly, all who have participated in this discussion, from whatever political position, have erred grievously. The paradigm of an amnesiac American Jewry during the postwar era has been built on slipshod scholarship that puts ideology over evidence....

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