Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944

Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944

by Haskel Lookstein, Elie Wiesel

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In this major work exploring the American Jewish response to the Holocaust as it occurred, by examining contemporary Jewish press accounts of such events as Kristallnacht, the refusal to allow the refugee ship St. Louis to land in America, the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, and the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, Haskel Lookstein provides us with an important perspective on the way in which events are reported on, perceived, and interpreted in their own time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497631182
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/24/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 346,366
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has a bachelor’s from Columbia College, a master’s in rabbinics, a doctorate in modern Jewish history from Bernard Revel Graduate School, and ordination from Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Theological Seminary. A past president of Yeshiva University Rabbinic Alumni, and professor of humanities at REITS, of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Lookstein has been deeply involved in issues of concern to the Jewish community. He was chairman of the Greater New York Coalition for Soviet Jews, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, President of the Synagogue Council of America, Chairman of the Rabbinic Cabinet of National UJA, and member of the board of the Joint Distribution Committee. Rabbi Lookstein’s works have appeared in Tradition, Sh’ma, Congress Monthly, Moment, HaDarom, and newspapers in the United States and Israel. Rabbi Lookstein and his wife Audrey have four children and twelve grandchildren.

Read an Excerpt

Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?

The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust 1938â"1944

By Haskel Lookstein


Copyright © 1985 Haskel Lookstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-3118-2



The indifference and insensitivity of those non-Jews who stood by While Six Million Died, doing nothing when "They Could Have Been Saved," has been exposed and documented. But what did American Jews do in the years of the Holocaust?

The Jewish Spectator November 1968, p. 8

The question posed by The Jewish Spectator is in part an outgrowth of the work of a revisionist school in Holocaust history, which made its appearance a decade and a half ago with the publication of Arthur D. Morse's While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy. This school of thought suggests that, while the Nazis were the perpetrators of the Holocaust, they were not the only guilty parties. The Western democracies, the Pope, the neutral countries, and the potential refuge nations of South and Central America, because they stood by while 6 million Jews were murdered‡ by Hitler, shared in the guilt and became, in a sense, passive accessories to the most terrible crime in human history.

Since the publication of Morse's work, several scholars have published more broadly based studies, which examine the refugee-rescue problem, 1938-1945, and which consider dispassionately the possibilities that existed for resettlement and rescue: David S. Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941, published in 1968; Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945, published in 1970; Saul S. Friedman, No Haven for the Oppressed:United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1938-1945, published in 1973; Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, published in 1981; and, most recently, a second widely acclaimed volume by Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, published in 1984. All give some scholarly confirmation to the story told by Morse. These historians, however, join Morse in suggesting that there was an additional group that must share the burden of guilt for the Holocaust. That group was American Jewry. Many American Jews, Morse observed, were "as disinterested as their Christian countrymen" in the plight of European Jewry and thus "became bystanders to genocide."

Jews who occupied high places in the New Deal, in greater numbers than in any previous administration, have been criticized by historians for failing to exert maximum pressure upon a President who might have been more responsive had such pressure been forthcoming. Divisiveness within the American Jewish community, it has been noted, served as an impediment to efforts on behalf of the victims of Nazi persecution. In general, the Jewish community of the Holocaust period has been accused of being too timid in responding to the indifference of America and its Allies and, consequently, of being unequal to the unprecedented human challenge with which it was confronted.

This study is an attempt to shed some light on the validity of these criticisms of American Jewry. It is an analysis of what American Jews were doing publicly. It does not touch on initiatives, undertaken in private, by individuals or organizations.

Because of the vast area to be covered, this study has focused upon six events from November 1938 through July 1944, two prewar and four during the war. I am indebted to Professor Elie Wiesel for his shared wisdom in advising me as to the choice of events to be studied. Each of these events, and the periods that followed them, presented a challenge to American Jewry that called for a public response. The events and their subsequent periods are as follows:

1. Kristallnacht and its aftermath, November 10, 1938, through the end of December 1938. The pogrom of November 10 and the ensuing physical and economic persecutions of German Jews represented a decisive turning point in the tragedy of German Jewry, of which German Jews and American Jews were aware. Gerald Reitlinger considers Kristallnacht to be the beginning of the chronology of the Holocaust. Lucy S. Dawidowicz calls Kristallnacht the night "the Jewish community of Germany went up in flames." Until Kristallnacht Jews were subjected to severe economic restrictions and their legal and political status was undermined. But it was not until November 10, 1938, that the Nazi government launched a campaign of physical brutality toward Jews, a new course of action which led eventually to their annihilation.

2. The voyage of the St.Louis, May 13-June 21, 1939. During this thirty-nine-day period a ship filled with German-Jewish refugees sailed to Cuba, was not allowed to land her human cargo, and, after lingering for eleven days in Western Hemisphere waters—several of those days off the coast of Florida—set sail back toward Hamburg, where a terrible fate awaited her frantic passengers.

3. The news of the murder of 2 million Jews and the American Jewish response evoked by that news, November 24, 1942, through March 1943. This was the period during which many American Jews were presented with the facts about the impending genocide of European Jewry. Their response to this disclosure will contribute much to an understanding of American Jewry's public attitude during the Holocaust.

4. The Warsaw ghetto uprising and the public response to it of American Jewry, April 19, 1943, through June 1943.

5. The campaign to create a rescue agency for the relief of European Jews, July 1943 through January 1944, when the War Refugee Board was created. In this period. American Jews were already committed to a rescue program. Their public response to a concrete proposal for rescue provides insight into Jewish priorities and concerns during the Holocaust.

6. The Nazi occupation of Hungary and the deportation of masses of Hungarian Jews to extermination camps, March 19, 1944, through July 1944.

The public response of American Jews, during each of these periods, to the perilous state of their European brethren can be evaluated by a series of questions, which are applicable to each period. What was publicly known about the Holocaust in general, or the particular event or issues involved, in each of the periods? How was this knowledge interpreted by American Jewry? Were the available facts understood? What implications were drawn from the facts? How did the Jewish press report these events? How much coverage of the events and the issues was offered to the Jewish readers? What was the editorial comment in each of the periods? How did Jewish leaders express themselves publicly in reaction to these events and the issues they raised? Finally, what public action was taken by Jews in response to the events and the issues?

In order to answer these questions, a broad sampling of the Jewish press has been studied for each of the periods. The press has been chosen as a primary source because it reflected well what was known by American Jews and what the different segments of American Jewry were thinking and doing. The Jewish community in the United States, unlike its Catholic counterpart, does not have a hierarchical unity. Nevertheless, it is a community with many organizations, and these, in sum, reflect every major group difference within the total community. The public statements of these organizations may be found in the Anglo-Jewish press, where virtually every periodical serves as the house organ for some specific communal organization. As Henry L. Feingold has concluded: "The opinions of ... the American Jewish community can best be gleaned from the Anglo-Jewish press."

But the press is a good source for more than opinions and attitudes. It is also an instrument by which to measure what Jews knew about the Holocaust, since it was their primary source for news about Jews around the world. It also enables one to gauge what public activities were carried on during the period under review. The Anglo-Jewish weekly newspapers and periodicals depended almost entirely upon the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin (JTA) for its news reports about European Jewry, as well as for the world reaction and the response of Jews in America and throughout the world. An analysis of the JTA, therefore, should provide a reliable index of the information available to American Jews.

The other major source of Jewish news was the Yiddish press, which provided virtually a measurement of the pulse of the community. No other foreign-language press in America reflected the intimate life of the people it represented so deeply or was so influential in molding the opinions and attitudes of its public. During the Holocaust, the Yiddish press had a circulation of around 400,000 nationally, of which approximately 250,000 was in New York. The readership was probably two to three times higher than the circulation figures. This study has focused on the four major daily Yiddish newspapers in New York, which ranged in viewpoint from conservative to communist.

Besides relying upon the Anglo-Jewish press sampling, the JTA, and the four major Yiddish dailies in New York, this study has also included The New York Times for each period. The reason for choosing the Times is its status as the "paper of record" and the newspaper that is expected to have the most complete and reliable news coverage. It is likely that many New York Jews relied upon the Times for their Jewish news and respected the accuracy of the reports found in that newspaper.

For the purposes of this study, the following newspapers and periodicals were read for each of the six periods:

The New York Times.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin.

Jewish Daily Forward—the New York Yiddish daily with the largest circulation. Its viewpoint was socialist, universalist, and unsupportive of Zionism. It was the paper of Jewish labor.

The Day—the most prestigious Yiddish daily in New York because of its columnists. Its editorial stance was mildly liberal and actively Zionist.

Morning Journal—originally the widest read of the daily Yiddish papers, because at first it was the only large morning paper among them. This paper combined a religious outlook with patriotic Americanism. It was politically conservative and supportive of Zionism.

The Freiheit—official communist Yiddish daily.

Congress Bulletin (later Congress Weekly)—published weekly by the liberal, activist, and pro-Zionist American Jewish Congress.

National Jewish Monthly—published by B'nai B'rith. A magazine of general Jewish news, editorials, features, and B'nai B'rith news.

Contemporary Jewish Record—published bimonthly by the American Jewish Committee, featuring essays and a chronicle of Jewish news for the preceding two months.

American Jewish Year Book—an annual, published by the American Jewish Committee, containing feature articles, statistical tables, and a comprehensive review of Jewish news for the year.

Reconstructionist—published bimonthly by the liberal-wing Conservative religious group of the same name. It was a Zionist, liberal, and activist magazine. (There was no regular publication of the Conservative religious movement during the Holocaust period.)

Opinion—an independent monthly edited by Stephen S. Wise, liberal, Zionist, and deeply committed to the American democratic tradition as exemplified by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Jewish Spectator—the only other independent magazine, a monthly, edited for most of the periods by the activist, pro-Zionist Trude WeissvRosmarin.

Jewish Frontier—a Labor Zionist monthly, liberal and activist in its approach to Jewish problems.

The Answer—published irregularly by Peter Bergson's activist, Zionist-Revisionist group, beginning in early 1943.

The Orthodox Union—published more or less monthly by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and devoted largely to news and essays of concern to modern Orthodox Jews in America.

The Synagogue and Liberal Judaism—monthly or bimonthly publications of the Reform Jewish movement in America.

Menorah Journal—a liberal literary magazine published quarterly by the Menorah Society.

Jewish Center—published quarterly by the Jewish Welfare Board and devoted to articles of concern to Jewish social and group workers.

Hadoar—the Hebrew language weekly.

Notes and News—published "from time to time" by the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds and devoted to philanthropic issues and activities.

The New Palestine—published weekly and later bimonthly by the Zionist Organization of America, containing news and articles largely devoted to the Zionist cause.

Hadassah Newsletter—published monthly by Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization. It was a parallel publication to New Palestine.

Jewish Outlook—a monthly magazine published by Mizrachi, the religious Zionist organization.

Conference Record—a short-lived publication founded in August 1943 to describe the work of the American Jewish Conference.

The Sentinel—a weekly newspaper for the Chicago Jewish community. Chicago was the second largest Jewish city in America, with a Jewish population of 363,000 in 1937. This newspaper is a partial reflection of what Chicago Jews knew about the Jewish tragedy in Europe during this period and what response was forthcoming from the community.

Jewish Exponent—a weekly newspaper published in Philadelphia, the third largest Jewish community in the United States, with a

Jewish population of 293,000 in 1937. This newspaper provides information on the public response of Philadelphia Jews during the six periods.

Jewish Advocate—a weekly newspaper published in Boston, the fourth largest Jewish community in the country, with a Jewish population of 118,000 in 1937. (In the late thirties, there were no other Jewish population centers in America with more than 100,000 members.) This newspaper served the same purpose for Boston as the Jewish Exponent did for Philadelphia and the Chicago Jewish Chronicle did for Chicago.


The public reaction of American Jews to the Holocaust can only be understood against a background of the American and world response. Scholars who have analyzed that response have found it extremely limited, and voices from the period itself testify eloquently to the same indifference. Freda Kirchway, the editor of The Nation, writing in March of 1943, summed it up thus:

In this country, you and I, the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler's guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent cowardly ones, the two million lying today in the earth of Poland ... would be alive and safe. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and yet we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be better to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits and a thick layer of prejudice.

Kirchway's moral outrage might offend the judgment of more dispassionate historians, but the facts to which she alluded are, by now, a matter of historical record. The United States did not open her doors to refugees fleeing from Hitler. She did not even admit the number of immigrants that her quotas allowed from countries under Nazi Germany. From 1938 to 1941, the restrictionist quotas allowed for 212,000 immigrants from those lands, whereas only 150,000 were actually permitted to enter. This was due to the even more restrictionist visa administration of State Department Undersecretary Breckinridge Long. Even in 1943, when the United States government knew what was happening to European Jews, only 23,775 aliens entered this country, the lowest figure in eighty years. Of course, after January 1942, the issue ceased to be merely hospitality to refugees but a matter of rescuing Jews who were condemned to death by the Nazis. Hitler's machinery of extermination was pitted against the Allied determination to rescue the intended victims. It was no contest. The Allied determination simply did not exist—rescue was to be accomplished through victory. Any departure from that policy was considered criminal.

Does this mean that Roosevelt and Churchill were indifferent to the fate of European Jewry? Scholars disagree on that point. Some dispute the word "indifference" and ascribe the meagre rescue effort to the fact that rescuing European Jews had a low priority with a President and a Prime Minister whose main concerns were with winning the war. Others observe that Roosevelt's State Department actively opposed a large-scale rescue effort and that the British Foreign Office was actually fearful that a serious effort might be successful. This would pose an even more difficult problem: What should be done with all those rescued Jews? In the meantime Hitler's death camps were efficiently ensuring that fewer and fewer Jews would remain to be rescued.


Excerpted from Were We Our Brothers' Keepers? by Haskel Lookstein. Copyright © 1985 Haskel Lookstein. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Cover Page
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • 1. A Difficult Question
  • 2. Kristallnacht
  • 3. The Saddest Ship Afloat
  • 4. The Final Solution Becomes Public Knowledge
  • 5. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
  • 6. The Campaign for a Rescue Agency
  • 7. The Trap Shuts
  • 8. Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Copyright Page

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