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What Did They Know? When Did They Know? How Did They Interpret the Information?

Part II

Initial Reaction of American Jews to the Beginning of the War in Europe

American Jewish leaders were not surprised that the war would produce immense suffering for their European brethren. The initial reports deeply concerned them about the precarious position of the Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. Even before the war began, Hayim Greenberg, head of Poalei Zion and editor of the Labor Zionist Jewish Frontier, warned on June 15, 1939, that Jews “will be the first to suffer,” and that the conflict “might envelope the entire world.”

On September 13, 1939, Jacob Lestchinsky, the noted historian, sociologist and authority on Jewish demography and economic history, advised American Jews “to be prepared for events whose frightfulness will eclipse” the pogroms and massacres of the last war. “Human imagination,” he said, “is simply too limited to grasp the probable magnitude of the war’s toll or how much Jewish blood will be shed.” He feared the Jews of Ukraine, Galicia and Romania were in grave danger.

Writing in B’nai B’rith’s The National Call in October, 1939, Albert Viton, a journalist who reported from Palestine before joining the US Department of Agriculture in early 1940, observed that “everywhere Jews are the chief sufferers…and that there is no limit to their possible misery….” He believed that “a terribly large portion of Jews in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe will not survive the war; possibly as many as half of them will perish before the end.”

In the September-October 1939 issue of The Contemporary Jewish Record, published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Committee expressed uncertainty as to what awaited the Jews in the future. “It is as yet too early today to comprehend the full extent of the tragedy which has overtaken the world… but [it] is sufficiently great to defy the imagination and stir the deep sympathy of those who still believe in mercy, justice and the protection of the weak.”

The November 1939 edition of The Call, the official organ of the English-speaking division of the Workman’s Circle, acknowledged that European Jewry would be greatly affected. “In the coming days, the areas of Jewish wretchedness will increase, the intensity of Jewish agony will reach a breaking point.”

Dr. Henryk Szoszkes, former vice-president of the Warsaw Jewish Community Council, who escaped from Poland in November, 1939, reported that “the Nazi’s aim was physical destruction in the shortest possible time of as many Jews as possible.”

The exact number of Jews who had been killed could not be established at this point. Based on information obtained from the World Jewish Congress, the JTA reported on December 18, 1939, that in Nazi-occupied Poland “about a quarter of a million Jews have been wiped out by military operations, executions, disease and starvation and that at least 80 percent of the remaining Jews had been reduced to complete beggary.”

American Jewish Response to the Jewish Suffering

American Jews quickly understood that the war had thrust upon them enormous responsibilities. The Jewish Spectator, an independent Jewish monthly, remarked that “never before was it so imperative that American Jewry extend a helping hand to our unfortunate brothers. Not only are there three and a half million Jews on the threshold of annihilation, but, what is even a greater calamity, the strong fortress of Judaism in Poland is about to fall.”

Providing assistance required American Jewry to work in concert, declared The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. The paper urged that a resolute effort be made to mend “communal fences,” so that the responsibilities of all Jewish agencies engaged in relief work could be “dispatched with greater dispatch.” The Jewish Frontier concurred with the need for “united action.”

After returning from a visit to Europe, Samuel Margoshes, editor of the Yiddish daily The Day (Der Tog) (closely aligned with the American Jewish Congress), declared in a front page editorial on September 10, 1939, that “… to a far greater degree than in the last war, American Jewry is the only hope of the whole Jewish people. On the way the Jews of America will fulfill their destiny will depend the fate, the life and the welfare of the Jewish masses in many lands…”

In the view of the Jewish leaders Margoshes met at the World Jewish Congress, American Jewry’s first task was to “assume the colossal financial burden of a far-flung relief drive.” Only American Jewry was in the position to undertake such a formidable endeavor because of its wealth and America’s neutral status.

Margoshes believed this required involving the Jewish masses. He called upon the American Jewish Congress to assume the lead and “play the historic role that it played at the end of the last war.” He concluded the focus of American Jewry had to be “To save all that can be salvaged in the Jewish world and to build here in America, a strong, rich, sound Jewish life.”

“This is no time for folded hands,” declared J. David Delman, National Adjutant of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States.

Educating the American public about the extent of the devastation became another responsibility of American Jews, asserted The Jewish Frontier. In its September 1939 edition, an editorial insisted it is important that the American public understand that in this war, there we no havens where Jews could seek refuge, that the Jews were being held “as convenient scapegoats so that the vengeance of the populace may be turned against them in time of stress or disaster; and the Nazis had embarked on a policy of ‘annihilation’” of the Jews.

By Alex Grobman, PhD

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