Did Postwar Jews Really Ignore the Holocaust for Several Decades?


Hasia R. Diner is Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History, and Director, Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, New York University.

        Of all the books that I have written over the course of my career, We Remember With Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust, 1945-1962 is one that I should have not had to write. The previous 10 books came into being as a result of some historical puzzle which intrigued me and my interest in reconstructing some aspect or another of the past.          

          But We Remember had a very different birth. My decision to embark on it came from the fact that American and American Jewish historians, as well as journalists, public intellectuals, Jewish communal activists, among others, have been involved for several decades now in the construction and dissemination of a false history about American Jews in the post-World War II years and their relationship to the Holocaust.

         In the regnant view of that history the Jews of the United States in the two decades following the end of the war with its shuddering reality that one-third of the Jewish people had been destroyed, would not, could not, and did not make that horrendous reality part of their communal culture. Those who have constructed this rendition of the past and those who continue to repeat it as truth agree that a culture of silence stalked American Jewry in the postwar period. Whether writing from the left or from the right, whether from inside the Jewish community or from outside, they have converged around a common tale which has asserted that as postwar Jews found American society opening up for them in new and welcoming ways, they decided that the Holocaust could not be part of their repertoire of concerns. The architects of the myth have likewise made much of the Cold War and have stated emphatically and repeatedly that in the tense atmosphere of those years Jews assiduously sought to avoid anything that made them seem different than other white, middle class Americans and conspired to deflect attention from West Germany, which had emerged as America's bulwark against Communism. Jews, this narrative has declaimed, did not want to seem soft on Communism by pointing out the vast crime perpetrated by the Germans. Additionally, the standard narrative, constructed by historians, has focused on the leaders of American Jewry, who purportedly put the lid on any talk of the Holocaust, ensuring that memorializations of the deaths of the six million at the hands of the German Nazis and their allies, did not take place. That horrific topic had to be bracketed, marginalized, and talk of it, particularly in the public sphere, had to be squelched.

           This kind rhetoric became established as fact and enshrined in serious pieces of scholarship in the early 1980s, and when I first confronted it, it took me aback. When I read this for the first time I wondered about the worthiness of this particular understanding of the postwar period. First, it seemed to me that if American Jews had in actuality decided to forget those brutal deaths and not dwell on the destructions, they would have acted in ways that made them quite different from any other group whose history we know about. Human beings, in all places and at all times, have memorialized the tragedies endured by their people. The experience of Jews since before the common era itself stands as a testimony to the power of tragedy to shape communal practice and something as simple, but fundamental, as the cycle of the Jewish calendar moves from one devastation to another, giving Jewish life its yearly flow. How amazing it would have been if these American Jews could in actuality have deviated so far from a universal norm.

         Secondly, had the Jews of the United States really followed orders imposed upon them by the communal elite and agreed to remain silent about the Holocaust, they would have, for that moment in time also departed from the basic trajectory of their own history. The kind of communal discipline upon which the myth of silence stands represents a radical deviation from the basics of the Jewish experience in America. I knew as an historian that since the early nineteenth century the distinctive feature of Jewish life in America had been the lack of communal authority, grass roots anarchy, and the rise of multiple and constantly changing groupings of American Jews, all scuffling with each other over the nature of Judaism, Jewish culture, politics, and the structure of community life, with no one ever able to dictate what American Jews could say, when, and how.

            Finally the historic consensus that maintained that the Holocaust lay buried below the surface of American Jewish life until the middle or the end of the 1960s grabbed my attention because it flew in the face of my own memories of those earlier years. While I am generally skeptical about personal recollections as the basis of history, memories of lived life can at times be helpful in launching our inquiries about the past. Was I, I asked myself, misremembering the American Jewish world of the 1950s and early 1960s in which talk about the tragedy of the six million, texts about their brutal deaths, and rituals to memorialize abounded? Or, did my particular experiences of Holocaust works in the American Jewish public world just jar profoundly with those of other American Jews at the time?

          Had other historians offered a more complicated and nuanced interpretation of postwar American Jewish history and the role of the Holocaust in it and had they actually done any real sustained scholarship, I might never had written this book. Had they explored changes in the nature of Holocaust memorial projects from 1945 through the beginning of the twenty-first century, I would have been satisfied. Had they acknowledged that American Jews always used the deaths of the six million as a way to advance their political and cultural agendas, but that as those agendas moved from one cause to another, the ways they used the Holocaust also shifted, I might never have taken on this project. But rather they stated and restated as a given that in the years from 1945 into the middle of the 1960s the Holocaust had no place in their communal lives and that they did not confront the larger American public with its horrendous narrative.

         I wanted to know what the women and men who constituted the Jews of the United States in the postwar period said and did in relationship to the Holocaust. What did they create in terms of rituals, words and images to make their world a place which recognized the enormity of the loss and the burden which that loss placed on them? What I found was a mammoth range of memorial projects created in various genres, articulated in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, by every segment of American Jewry. Instead of silence American Jews in their public sphere employed the Holocaust to shoulder a range of tasks: providing aid to the survivors of the catastrophe, making sure that the world and Americans in particular remembered that Germany had been the perpetrator of the crime, advancing such political projects as civil rights, immigration reform, passage of the Genocide Convention, and garnering support for Israel, among others. The leaders of American Jewry from across the spectrum of ideology and class, rather than hushing up the tragedy, used it affirmatively as a justification for a call to the masses of American Jews to become “more Jewish,” more committed to communal institutions and more zealous in their commitment to Jewish life. Silence did not reign, but rather postwar American Jewish life functioned as a place where the details of the Holocaust, words about it, metaphors, details, allusions, could be heard everywhere.

Why did this vast history of engagement with the Holocaust get erased? How was it possible for historians and others to claim with utter conviction that the Holocaust had no place in American Jewish life in the post war period? To answer that fully would require a full historical treatment in itself. I think however that it would suffice here to say that the architects of the myth of silence fall into two camps.

Some historians, journalists, and other contemporary commentators, writing from the right and from within the Jewish world, see the postwar period as the nadir of Jewish authenticity. They consistently condemn postwar Jews for having been too fervent in their embrace of the acceptance being offered to them by postwar liberalism. Those Jews, accordingly, could not have been willing to make their communities places to enshrine the Holocaust. For this swathe of historians and other scholars, the 1950s represented a moment in time when Jews would have done anything to win the favor of the non-Jewish world. Following that logic, the Jewish women and men of that decade, broadly defined, would not have used their political agency to act in the name of the Holocaust’s devastation.

On the other hand the myth of silence has also been built from the left, from critics of contemporary American Jewish politics. They assert that American Jews only turned to the Holocaust after they emerged as the almost monomaniacal defenders of Israel as a post-1967 occupier of Arab lands. Before that transformative moment in Jewish and world politics, those from the left have declared, American Jews had no need for the Holocaust. These scholars and writers as such could not have seen that the Holocaust had always been on the center stage of American Jewry’s public culture, that long before those six days in June, American Jews had made the Holocaust a powerful element in their communal culture.

Those who have created the myth of silence have been blinded by their political agendas to the grass roots, experimental, spontaneous process by which text by text, artifact by artifact, and deed by deed American Jews of the postwar years made themselves the custodians of the memory of the Holocaust and made it a powerful element in their communal culture.

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Andy Dyer - 11/12/2009

Missing from this article is any source for the claim that the Holocaust was lost and found again. The most virulent espouser of this idea is surely Norman Finkelstein in his explosive book "The Holocaust Industry". He makes statements such as "American Jewry 'discovering' the Nazi holocaust was worse than its having been forgotten."

Finkelstein (b. 1953 to two death-camp survivors, both of whom lost all their other relatives) does not remember "the Nazi holocaust ever intruding on my childhood". No one "outside my family seemed to care". Despite coming from a widely read background in which all the events of the day were discussed, he could not recall anyone "asking a single question about what my mother and father endured. This was not a respectful silence. It was simply indifference." His later scepticism about the "Holocaust Industry" is partly because of what he calls "the current crass exploitation of Jewish martyrdom". The small amount of scholarly study on it from the likes of Hilberg, Frankl and Lingens-Reiner before the 1960s is "better than the shelves upon shelves of shlock that now line libraries and bookstores".

Towards the end of their lives, Finkelstein's parents lost interest in the Holocaust as a public spectacle, his father coming to believe that a lifelong friend and former fellow inmate of Auschwitz had been corrupted had tailored his beliefs "for power and profit". His mother would quote Henry Ford: "History is bunk" with deliberate irony.

Finkelstein doesn't actually say how close his family were to the Jewish community, so we can't tell how fair he's being to blame "American Jewry" for what he sees as the neglect and rediscovery of the Shoa. But it seems odd indeed to publish an article on this "Holocaust re-discovery" and not mention a man who claims to speak for himself and two other very significant witnesses. Incidentally, Norman Finkelstein is a regular Zionist and supporter of a two-state solution granting no "Right of Return" to Palestinians. His problem is only with current Israeli policy. The large amount of hatred of him comes from his writings, ably documenting what he sees as large scale fraud and hypocrisy. His book "The Holocaust Industry" is full of carefully referenced information that dozens of other authors have found worth re-using in the 8 years since it first came out.

Elliott Aron Green - 7/16/2009

Paul may be right about that.

Elliott Aron Green - 7/16/2009

Joe, in fact the USA wants Israel to keep on taking the money which is in fact a means of political pressure on Israel. More Americans should understand that, then they would stop complaining about Israel and other foreign states getting US money, or they would call for stopping the "foreign aid" flow and stopping interfering. If Americans want to stop sending US money abroad, then they should stop "peacemaking" which always costs mucho dinero, although it does not often make peace.

But nobody in Washington wants to stop sending troops abroad, least of all Pres. Obama. He takes them out of Iraq with his right hand and sends them to Afghanistan with his left hand.

Speaking of foreign aid, Saudi Arabia has probably been the major recipient of US foreign aid over the years since oil payments/royalties were long considered "taxes" paid by Aramco to Saudi Arabia and thus fully deductible from corporate income tax under the Foreign Tax Credit. [See John Blair, The Control of Oil].

Paul Noonan - 7/15/2009

I'm not Jewish and do not pretend to any particular knowledge about the American Jewish community. But I wonder if this idea that American Jews did not discuss the Holocaust from 1945-1965 did not arise in the following way: People who were children and early adolescents (say up to age 16) during this period do not recall adults speaking of this subject to them or to other adults about it in their presence. The reason for this is that before the 1960s there was a general belief that children should be shielded from such knowledge for their own good. Ask anyone over 60 about this. The idea that young people should not be shielded from such things is one of the many things that has changed in this (and other Western) societies in the past 45 years. I suspect the average American 12 or 13 years of age(Jewish or Gentile) in 2009 is apt to know more about the Holocaust or other horrors of history than a person of that age would have been in, say, 1955. But this likely has to do with the decline of adult reticience to discuss such matters with youth, not to a change as to the discourse between adults with no children present.

Joseph Mutik - 7/15/2009

I know about the help you are talking about, but as you say it was "some help". Israel was a new nation where a lot of people lived in shanty dwellings. Israel was not included in the Marshall plan, as it would have been normal. The real economic development begun when the German money begun to come in. France during the war in Algeria was on the same side and helped Israel. France sold Israel the Dimona reactor the crown jewel, the great Renaissance Man Shimon Perez, gave Israel. This reactor was an argument in convincing the USA to help Israel after 1967 but of course the main reason was the need for the USA to divert Soviet Union from concentrating on Vietnam.
Of course the help Israel receives from the USA is peanuts compared to the help received by Germany or Italy, for example.

Elliott Aron Green - 7/14/2009

Joe, Israel did get some help in the late 1940s from sources that you might not expect: France and the USSR helped in various ways --and so did Italy. They knew that Britain was pulling its usual double cross. The Brits meant to shut out French and Soviet and US interests from the Middle East, while setting up a pan-Arab state in the Fertile Crescent that would be under British sponsorship and give the UK special concessions. This pan-Arab state would have its capital in Damascus. French agents got wind of the plan.

For documentation on this, see 2 articles by Israeli historian Meir Zamir in HaAretz last year.

Joseph Mutik - 7/14/2009

Trumann recognized Israel because he had to solve the problem of the Jewish refugees of Europe. Trumann could not accept so many Jews immigrating into the USA because it would alienate the Jew haters from his own party (especially the dixiecrat part of it). Marshall was flatly against Israel and he expressed it openly. After the recognition Israel didn't receive any material help from the USA. The only "military" help was the voluntary help of colonel Marcus who resigned his position in the Pentagon and went to Israel to help with the organization of the new Israeli army. The new and very poor state of Israel didn't receive any real help till the beginning of the 1950s when the money from Germany begun to come in.

Tim M. Matthewson - 7/14/2009

I've not heard of it either! Inface, just the opposite is true; Hollywood studios and their leaders, often Jewish, played an important role in promotion of the independence of Israel.

Tim M. Matthewson - 7/14/2009

The author leaves out Truman recognition of the independent state of Israel only a few minutes after it was declared, a vital step in the survival of Israel to this day.

Tim M. Matthewson - 7/14/2009

Sitting back in our comfortable nation state, it is comforting to believe in universal norms. The problem is that the do not exist and have never existed. Rather than posit a universal norm, the author seems to believe that he does not need to prove the interest of people in the holocaust. That's why the essay and book are weak!

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2009

What I'm struggling with is that I never heard this myth, never read a history which perpetuated it, and never ran across any mention of it until now. Perhaps I'm just too young, and I admit that I've not read a lot of post-ww2 histories, but still I find it odd that such a consensus exists or existed.

That said, a solid history presenting reality is always welcome. I'll be curious to see what other reactions come up, if there's really any weight behind this myth at this point.

Joseph Mutik - 7/13/2009

First reality to cover up was the fact that USA and UK acquiesced during the war the German final solution to the Jewish problem. Not only USA and UK did it but these countries had the power to do something against it before or during the war.
A large part of the non Jewish population of the USA had a very deep hatred against the Jews. This hatred is very well described in the movie "Gentleman's Agreement" made in 1947 by Elia Kazan with Gregory Peck in the main role. The US Congress didn't accept Jewish refugees before the war, even a proposition to accept 20000 European Jewish children into the USA didn't get out of the committee but 6 months later the Congress easily passed legislation to accept 40000 British children into the USA. A cousin of FDR commented about saying that "nice Jewish children will grow up to be ugly adults".
After 1945 hundreds of thousands of Jews out of extermination camps were stranded in transit camps in Europe without the possibility of going anywhere. The Jews who tried to go back to their houses in Poland were "welcomed" with a pogrom in Kielice. Reluctantly president Trumann supported the formation of Israel, because no nation would accept the Jews of Europe. The young nation of Israel didn't receive any economic or military help but in these harsh conditions they had the insolence to survive the war of independence in 1948. Marshall didn't include Israel in his plan and the Israelis were forced to beg Germany for help. The Germans didn't declare a Marshall type plan but they bargained with Israel and following the treaty Israel received money from Germany. If we sum up all the payments made by Germany to Israel it adds up to less than 15% of the Jewish material wealth in Germany before the war. Anyway Germany is the only country that paid something for the crimes perpetrated against the Jews.
USA didn't help Israel before 1967. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were very unfriendly to Israel. Only after 1967 when the destruction of Israel implied the danger of middle eastern oil becoming radioactive, USA begun to give Israel military help.
The list of facts is very long but the reality is that before 1960 the American public wasn't ready to express any compassion for the Jewish destiny. Only when the Israeli Jews proved that they can defend themselves and are not ready to go quietly and in order to the ovens the American public begun to acknowledge the reality of the Jewish holocaust during the WWII.
As usual and as in many other cases we have another blame the Jews situation and as in other cases there is something to cover up.