May 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part XVII

Throughout April, May and June 1940, the Nazis continued their drive to dominate Europe by conquering Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. As Saul Friedlander noted, the stunning Nazi victories caused panic in the U.S. and fear that an invasion of the Western hemisphere might be imminent.

The Germans understood that America was impotent as a result of the defeat of the Allies, and that no matter how vociferous their verbal objections might be, they were not in a position to initiate practical action. The U.S. was virtually in a state of paralysis in light of a looming election campaign, the speed in which 120 German divisions attacked the entire length of the Western front and the complete lack of preparedness on the part of the American armed forces.

The Jews had “worked themselves into a state of panic, verging on catastrophic despair,” observed Salo Baron, professor of Jewish history at Columbia University in the July-August 1940 edition of the Contemporary Jewish Record. An ever-increasing number of Jews began to believe that there was little use in attempting to ameliorate even a “small fraction” of the distress, for the refugee crisis seemed to be growing beyond their ability to cope with it.

The point had been reached where some Jews were “beginning sincerely to favor, or else find a ready excuse for, complete inertness and a fatalistic suspension of all activities, including even the financial contributions for relief of European Jewry and the reconstruction of Palestine.”

B’nai B’rith urged the American rabbinate to divert their attention from foreign affairs to their congregants, who were seriously disturbed by the problems confronting European Jewry. The rabbis could do little to affect change abroad, but might be able to relieve American Jewry’s sense of frustration and despair.

After the Nazi offensive in the West in May 1940, there were discussions about the possibility of a German victory and what it might mean for the Jews of Europe. Jacob Fishman, the editor of the Jewish Morning Journal, suggested that American Jews should develop a broader concept of time and space. Events should no longer be viewed within the context of an individual’s brief life span. Even if Hitler should win a momentary victory, it would mean very little in the course of history.

Salo Baron accepted the possibility of a German victory, but vainly tried to assure American Jewry that such a triumph did not necessarily mean that Germany would permanently dominate Europe. “Historic experience,” he maintained, “has shown that few conquerors know their limitations, and that as a rule, one war has led to another with ever-changing coalitions of power.” With regards to the Jews, Baron saw several mitigating factors that should have dispelled the “prevailing feeling of doom.”

First, almost two-thirds of the entire Jewish population lived in the Soviet Union and the U.S. At least for the time being, these groups were not in the range of direct hostilities and there was hope that they might be spared altogether. If you added the Jewish communities of Latin America and the British dominions, which were not likely to be invaded or to be permanently occupied, there were three-quarters of the Jewish people left in the world.

Although the Jews of the Soviet Union could not provide financial assistance, they were still a “moral factor.” In the future, they might be able to help other Jews find a place in the virgin territories of Russia.

Secondly, it is axiomatic that Jews suffer more significantly in nation states that were composed of multiple nationalities. Baron believed that as Germany would conquer large territories “…it would lose its national homogeneity and become a state of multiple nationality, which incidentally, might cool its anti-Semitic zest.” He envisioned the possibility of a sort of Pale of Settlement. Allowing the Jews to live in areas inhabited by the subjugated nationalities.

Thirdly, the tide of world-wide anti-Semitism might well have abated as a result of the war. Few nations would ever again be deceived by anti-Semitic charges that Jews are the mortal enemy. Anti-Semitism was not dead, but its future effectiveness on such a grand scale was highly questionable.

Fourthly, in considering the future of Palestine, it was important to recognize that even if the Italians would occupy Palestine, the Jews would be needed to help stem the tide of the local nationalist rebellion and maintain economic stability. On June 10, 1940, Italy joined the Axis and proclaimed war on France and the United Kingdom. After France signed an armistice agreement with Nazi Germany on June 22, 1940, the Italians took control of military bases in Ethiopia and in the Dodecanese Islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea, enabling them to attack British assets throughout the area.

No matter who won the war, Baron knew that millions of Jews were “doomed to gradual strangulation, to a disproportionate share in the general starvation, and to a physical and mental maltreatment by the governing powers that can hardly be imagined….” He asked that these “catastrophic realities” of the present and the future “serve as an incentive for a determined and vigorous effort, rather than an excuse for retiring into the corner of helplessness and hopeless inactivity.” It was the duty of the Jewish leadership to restore American Jewry’s composure and calmly explain the situation. Much had to be done and the energy stirred by the panic could be harnessed for constructive activity.

Alex Grobman, PhD

 

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