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Why Didn't The Press Shout? American & International Journalism During the Holocaust
Yeshiva University PressCopyright © 2003 Yeshiva University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTOWARDS THE FINAL SOLUTION: Perceptions of Hitler and Nazism in the US Left-of-Center Yiddish Press, 1930-1939
Abraham Brumberg Chevy Chase, MD
This paper focuses on one period only-that of the 1930s, which is to say, the years preceding and leading up to the implementation of the Final Solution. An important subject in and of itself, the early perceptions of Hitler and Nazism by American Jews help to explain their subsequent response to the mass extermination of six million European Jews.
Furthermore, the present paper examines the two major left-of-center New York Yiddish newspapers-the Forward (Forverts) and Morgn Frayhayt (Morning Freedom), later named simply Frayhayt-and a few journals generally allied with or sharing the point of view of one or the other of these newspapers. While I also refer to the two other dailies that appeared at that time, Der Tog (The Day) and Morgn zhurnal (Morning Journal), the principal emphasis, to repeat, is on the explicitly left-wing publications. How did the ideology and politics of these publications-social-democratic and Communist respectively-color their understanding of what Hitler and Nazism were all about, and how best to combat them?These, in a nutshell, are the questions to which I propose to address myself. To try to cover more ground would inevitably result-to reverse an old adage-in missing the trees for the forest.
Young scholars surveying the contemporary Jewish scene in the United States, with its plethora of English-language Jewish journals, from New York's The Jewish Week, or The San Francisco Jewish Ledger to Menorah Journal, Tikkun, and Commentary, are likely to be struck by the one-time magnitude and variety of the Yiddish press in this country. Only one truncated secular Yiddish newspaper still remains-the Forward-an appendage to its English language edition, now appearing as a weekly (a symbolic reversal: in the past, the English section was a weekly supplement to the daily Forverts.) Yet in the 1930s, the number of Yiddish readers was at least as large as that of readers of the Anglo-Jewish press, and the combined print-run of Yiddish papers and magazines exceeded that of the English-language publications.
Still earlier, in 1915-16, the circulation of the daily Yiddish press, excluding the numerous weeklies, monthlies, and other periodicals, was half a million in New York City alone, and 600,000 nationally. Even by the time the Second World War broke out, the combined circulation of the Yiddish press was 400,000, with some of the papers, such as Forward, also publishing special editions in Chicago and Los Angeles.
The magnitude of the Yiddish press was a reflection of the role played by Jews of East European origin during the first half of this century. It was the first and second generation of the East European Jews-as Irving Howe so eloquently demonstrated in his The World of Our Fathers-that built most of the cultural, philanthropic, fraternal, and political Jewish institutions in this country. The American Jewish Committee today is a powerful and influential organization. But, as late as in the 1940s, it was still identified as the representative of wealthy "Yahudim," that is, Jews of German background, with little affinity-indeed disdain-for Jews of Eastern European background, that is, for the mass of American Jews. One could name other organizations, too, influential today, that were nonexistent or insubstantial half a century ago.
All the Yiddish newspapers and periodicals in the 1920s and '30s could be called, in one way or another, left-wing, or at the least sympathetic to broad socialist values. Even the Orthodox Morgn zhurnal was not fundamentally hostile, having come out of the same matrix as the secular Jewish papers, that is, Tsarist Russia. This meant that most Orthodox Jews (with the exception of those belonging to the implacably anti-Zionist, anti-socialist and in fact firmly apolitical Agudas Israel), themselves victims of pogroms and persecutions in the "old country," could not but sympathize, to a lesser or greater extent, with some of the ideas of the "left-wingers," however much they might have been repelled by the anti-religious and bitterly anti-clerical ethos of the latter.
In addition, the late 1920s and early 1930s saw factional disputes resulting in the defection of a number of non-Communist writers to the Frayhayt, and then back to the other newspapers in the middle and late 1930s. (I shall have more to say about this further on.) Finally, the lines between the non-Communist papers, despite their ideological divergencies, were so fluid as to allow some well known writers to publish interchangeably in one or another.
But no other group on what used to be referred to in Yiddish as "the Jewish street" (di yidishe gas) was as unrelenting in its opposition to fascism and anti-Semitism as the parties on the left. The social democrats, communists, anarchists, territorialists, and socialist-Zionists, were not only Jews, they were Europeans, only one step removed from their countries of origin. That, plus their ideological orientation, explains the Left's grasp of and special sensitivity to right-wing movements in that part of the world.
Indeed, the spiritual closeness of the American socialists to the European scene persuaded Abraham Cahan, the long-time editor of the Jewish Forward, that his comrades lacked a proper understanding of native American radicalism-and he told them so in two long articles in 1932. There was much to what he said: the American offshoots of European political movements were essentially parochial, often, for instance, preaching the class-struggle to workers who were ready to challenge the "bosses" but without questioning the premises of the capitalist system. Yet that parochialism was at the same time responsible for a sharper insight into the nature of far-right movements in Europe.
The Forward was the principal Yiddish voice of Marxist social democracy. It was linked to the political-literary monthly Tsukunft (Future) and the weekly Der Veker (The Alarm), organ of the Jewish Socialist Federation. Under the impact of the social changes within the structure of American Jewry, and later of the Holocaust, the Forward-to run ahead of my story-would eventually become as pro-Zionist, or pro-Israel, as did most other Yiddish papers. In fact, in the late 1940s, the Forward Association decided, at a solemn meeting, to drop the two Marxist slogans that adorned the cover page of the Forward since its inception: "Workers of the Whole World-Unite," and "The workers have nothing to lose but their chains." True, these rousing pronunciamentos of the Communist Manifesto had long ceased to have much resonance in Forward circles. Still, their disappearance from the masthead of the newspaper caused considerable grief to many of the paper's long-time readers.
But this was all to be. In the 1930s, the belief in Marxism was a firm component of the Forward ethos, with many of its contributors known figures in the social democratic movement.
I come back, then, to the main topic: How did the Jewish socialists and communists react to the demise of the German Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi State?
It might be useful, first, to recapitulate the major events of 1930-1934: the Reichstag election of September 14, 1930, when the Nazis won a staggering victory, gaining 107 seats in the Reichstag in place of the previous 12, thus becoming the second largest political party in Germany; the increasingly vicious street brawls with the Stormtroopers; attacks on individual Jews, Jewish stores and organizations; the provincial elections yielding further Nazi increases; the bewildering number of cabinet changes, each one bringing Hitler closer to power; and the reelection of the elderly Hindenburg as president.
In July 1932 came the Reichstag elections in which almost 14 million German voters turned the Nazis into the largest political party; in January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. This was swiftly followed by laws restricting freedom of press and assembly and the legal permission to shoot "enemies of the state" without even a semblance of a trial. Then came the Reichstag fire and the ensuing reign of terror that led up to the March 6, 1933, elections, with the Nazis winning 43.9 percent of the vote.
Two weeks later, by use of mass arrests, threats and sham promises, Hitler had the Reichstag pass the so-called Enabling Act, banned the Communist Party, emasculated the socialists, and declared himself Führer not only of the National Socialist Party, but of the German Reich. The totalitarian state was now in place.
What, then, was the reaction of the American Jewish socialist press to these events? Oddly enough, especially given its intense hostility to fascism, it was at first phlegmatic. The 1930 and 1931 volumes of Der Veker and Di Tsukunft carried hardly any articles on the rise of fascism in Germany. The Forward, as a daily newspaper, did report on the relevant day to day developments, but also without any sense of urgency. The first time in 1930 that the Veker commented on this subject was on September 20, a week after the Reichstag elections.
The editorial, in fact, was thorough and astute. It emphasized the despair of the Germans, mainly the "middle classes," over the "terrible economic conditions" in the country, and the huge reparations that Germany had to pay in accord with the provisions of the Versailles Treaty as two of the principal reasons for the popularity of the Nazis. Subjected to the winds of nationalism fanned by the two "extreme parties," that is, the National Socialists and the Communists, said the Yiddish journal, "the people let themselves be swept into the embrace of chauvinism."
Yet, with the exception of this one editorial, however perspicacious, the Veker published nothing on Germany that year, nor for that matter in 1931. The Tsukunft was a bit, but not much, better. Not until October 1930, that is, after the fateful elections of September 14, did the monthly publish an article on this subject. The author was the editor, Abraham Liesin, and his article consisted mainly of a defense of the policies of the Social Democrats (SPD), especially of the then-collaboration between the SPD and the Center Party and Chancellor Brüning. A coalition government, said Liesin, was the only way to meet the interests of the workers, such as providing them with pensions, higher wages, health benefits and so on. Had the SPD insisted on remaining immaculate, said the editor, it would have never achieved these striking successes.
(I might mention, in passing, that those "striking successes" were little more than a myth, with the policies of the Brüning government causing gradually more unemployment, poverty, and despair.)
In addition, noting the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, Liesin also pointed out that Jews had for a long time comprised the backbone of republicanism in Germany: at one time in the Liberal Party, then in the Volkspartei, and when the latter became infused with anti-Semitism, they came to form the backbone of the Social Democratic Party. This characterization was something of an exaggeration, but it was not outrageous.
Abraham Liesin, then editor of Tsukunft, was both a socialist and what used to be termed in Yiddish a heyser yid, that is, an ardent Jew. Not a Zionist, he was, like many others, passionately committed to the survival of Jewish nationhood and culture, and, although a secularist, he often wrote of the martyrdom of religious Jews in opposing terror and attempts at forcible conversion-that is, Kiddush Hashem (the sanctification of the Name). In this he was close to the novelist Sholem Asch, also a secular Jew, and also an exponent of traditional Jewish values. A prolific poet, Liesin's works were largely of a hortatory nature and did not find their way into the many collections and translations of Yiddish poetry that have appeared over the last decade or so. It was therefore no surprise that in his editorial Liesin focused on the role of Jews in German political life. Yet, with the exception of this piece and two other articles by the political commentator P. Harkavi (not to be confused with the author of the Yiddish-Hebrew-English dictionary), little appeared in Tsukunft on the situation in Germany either in 1930 or 1931, at the time when ever darker clouds were gathering over Germany. What explains the relative passivity of the Jewish socialists at that time?
The answer to this question is to be found in the nature of Jewish experience vis-à-vis Germany, which gave rise to two interrelated views.
First, the American Jews' experience with Germany and with German anti-Semitism was very limited. The vast number of Jewish emigrants had come from Eastern Europe, where they were subjected to persecution, hatred, and pogroms by Ukrainians, Russians, Belorussians, and Poles. The Germans, on the other hand, in the eyes of most American Jews, were a "cultured," "civilized" nation, not given to the kind of savage behavior their former Slavic neighbors excelled in.
Whereas during the First World War the Germans were mortally detested by the French, Belgians and the British, the Jews in areas of Eastern Europe occupied by the German armies had few complaints. True, the German troops committed atrocities-as from time immemorial did every occupying army-but they were not noticeably directed against the Jews. In any case, the Germans certainly behaved infinitely better than either the Russian Whites and Reds, or the murderous Ukrainian troops, whatever their ideological hue.
To be sure, Germany had a venerable tradition of anti-Semitism, some of it articulated by prominent German cultural figures such as Heinrich von Treitschke and Richard Wagner. Yet vicious pogroms, such as those that regularly swept Eastern Europe, were rather a rarity in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Germany. In addition, as pointed out, most American Jews had little personal experience with the Germans in the first place.
Second, the Jewish socialists in the United States, like the Bund in Poland, were (perhaps more than any other group of socialists) ardent admirers of the German Social Democrats.
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