- We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust, 1945–1962
In her latest monograph, Hasia Diner refutes the scholarly assumption that American Jewry largely ignored the Holocaust through the end of the 1950s. [End Page 314] While it is true that the Holocaust was not completely ignored by American Jews after World War II ended, we can say that during the 1950s very few Jews thought much about it. During the five-year period following the murder of the six million, most American Jews, and Jews throughout the world, rallied to establish a Jewish state in Palestine and, to a much lesser extent, to find homes for the displaced persons who survived the war. These two issues—especially the establishment of a Jewish state—occupied the attention of most American Jews in the early postwar years, though there can be no doubt that the memories of the Holocaust propelled a majority of them to action.
Diner has collected an abundance of material showing that the Holocaust was not forgotten. YIVO reestablished itself as a scholarly institution in New York, rabbis and community leaders exhorted Jews to remember what happened to their brethren during the European war, and Jewish camps, synagogues, and community centers promoted activities to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Memorial services were held in some places. Despite all the evidence that she has amassed, however, there is no way to measure the impact the exhortations and reminders may have had upon Jews in the United States. It seems irrefutable that some Jews imbibed the message, but we cannot know what percentage of American Jews internalized or acted upon what they heard. To be sure, virtually every Jew had heard about Hitler and his determination in killing so many millions of people, but there is little evidence that Jewish communities internalized the memories of the Holocaust to the extent that Diner suggests in her book.
On the contrary, much of the evidence suggests ignorance rather than awareness. As we know from later writings, many Holocaust survivors refused to speak about their experiences even to their children; the children regarded their parents as somewhat "peculiar" but they did not understand the sources of the unusual behavior. Awareness of the common issues spread when children of survivors began to meet and share family tales. With the publication of Helen Epstein's Children of the Holocaust in 1979, a wider audience began to understand the problems of the "second generation." Furthermore, as Diner acknowledges, even offspring of non-Holocaust survivors "have asserted that in the Jewish families and communities they grew up in during the 1950s and 1960s, no one talked about the catastrophe" (p. 369).
What we do know about the 1950s is that relatively few literary works, histories, or films were produced about "the catastrophe," and that only some six or eight television shows highlighted the tragedy. The novelist Meyer Levin wrote a script for a play based on The Diary of Anne Frank, but the play's producers, together with Anne's father, rejected it; they wanted the play to be less "Jewish" and more "universal" in meaning. When he was choosing a dissertation topic at Columbia University, Raul Hilberg was advised by his mentors that he should not write about the Holocaust; the topic would be of little interest to anyone, they felt, and would not further his career. Hilberg defied them, but found that it took [End Page 315] several years to find a publisher for The Destruction of the European Jews because editors assumed there would be no market for such a topic. Had Diner explored the reasons for this widespread reluctance in the 1950s to raise the topic of the Holocaust, she might have been better able to explain later observers' belief that American Jews had ignored the catastrophe.
Awareness of Nazi schemes and of the indifference of so many...