The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy

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Part of the reply is that "too much publicity about the mass murder seemed undesirable, for it was bound to generate demands to help the Jews and this was thought to be detrimental to the war effort. Even in later years when victory was already assured there was little willingness to help. . . The statistics of murder were either disbelieved or dismissed from consciousness." Indeed, concludes Laqueur, many Jews could have been saved in 1944 by bombing the railway lines leading to the extermination centers as well as the centers themselves. This could have been done without deflecting any major resources from the general war effort. "In short, hundreds of thousands could have been saved. . . . There was not one reason for this overall failure but many different ones . . . . In some cases the motives were creditable, in others damnable." 14
There were a variety of people, some even of Jewish origin, who could have done more to save at least a large segment of Europe's Jews. In The Failure To Rescue (1977), Herbert Druks documents that Lawrence Steinhardt, as U.S. ambassador to Moscow, was accused of being responsible for the misfortunes of hundreds of Jews and had inspired the ruthless policy of the State Department. Steinhardt had sent reports to Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long in 1941 "that it was not in the interest of the United States to admit East European Jews." When American Jewish leaders approached President Roosevelt in 1941 asking him to let more refugees into the United States, he confronted them with Steinhardt's report. Druks observes that the President said he sympathized with the plight of the Jews, but he opposed the admission of Jews to America. Only "extremely needy individuals" would be admitted, and then only if they passed rigorous admissions tests, and if they would not in any way endanger United States security. That, maintains Druks, was Roosevelt's policy and that was the essence of America's diplomacy of rescue. 15
Thus Roosevelt managed to generate an impression of dedicated concern, but the reality was quite different. Whilst Roosevelt declared in a presidential statement on March 22, 1944, that:
In one of the blackest crimes of all history--begun by the Nazis in the day-of peace and multiplied by them a hundred times in time of war--the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour . . . That these innocent people, who have already survived a decade of Hitler's fury, should perish on the very eve of triumph over the barbarism which their persecution symbolizes, would be a major tragedy. 16
Nevertheless, as Morse records., when on April 5, 1944, New York Post columnist Samuel Grafton suggested the designation of "free ports for refugees" within the United States: . . . We do it, in commercial free ports, for cases of beans, so that we can make some storage and processing profit; it should not be impossible to do it for people." The President responded to this suggestion at a press conference, that it would not be necessary to establish havens in the United States because there were many countries to which the refugees could go. To a real suggestion for rescue "'the real hurdle' was the White House." 17
In June 1940, the President signed the Alien Registration Act which required all aliens over fourteen to be registered and fingerprinted. The State Department issued a "special care" circular advising all consular and diplomatic officers to re-evaluate all visas and extirpate the so-called subversive elements. No visa was to be granted if there was "any doubt whatsoever concerning the alien". The best interests of the United States had to be considered even if it meant a drastic reduction of quotas. Druks observes that the reinforced controls may have kept some spies out of the country, but it enabled unsympathetic consuls to reject Jews who held legitimate visas and tickets. 18
When the S. S. Quanza docked in Norfolk in September, 1941, en route to South America, the President's Advisory Committee suggested that the passengers be permitted to disembark until private organizations could make arrangements for them to reach their final destination. The State Department at first refused, and after some screening, it was discovered that five of the eighty passengers were qualified to receive emergency visas to the U.S. The State Department was pressured to admit them. Druks reports that Breckinridge Long, as Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Visa Division, was so incensed and galled that he brought his complaint directly to the President.
Long wrote in a memo of September 5, 1940, that "the list of Rabbis has been closed and now it remains for the President's Committee to be curbed." Druks adds that Long was the fellow who had been so impressed with Mussolini because the Duce made the Italian trains run on time, and on April 7, 1936, had written to William E. Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany:" From a purely objective point of view, I think the suggestions made by Hitler--if they are sincere, afford the biggest, broadest base for discussion made by any European statesman since the World War." 19
It was Long who came armed with reports from Steinhardt, when he wished to convince Roosevelt to impose even stricter visa regulations to protect America from "undesirables". Jews were "lawless, scheming, defiant" and "the same kind of criminal Jews who crowd our police dockets in New York." In this respect Steinhardt reflected the same mentality of New York's "up-town" wealthy European Jews who resented the arrival of East European Jews on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s. In America they attempted to undermine the traditional and educational values of the newcomers. Outside of America, Steinhardt evidently feared such new migrations to New York, bearing in mind the difficulties inherent in assimilating such "lawless, scheming, defiant" elements. Fatefully, it was the same Steinhardt who was U.S. Ambassador to Turkey at the time that Joel Brand arrived there with his mission on behalf of Hungarian Jewry. Brand thought Steinhardt to be "a good Jew. And besides that, a good man". 20 He hoped that Steinhardt would be "the best man to contact on the Allied side, if any approach to the Allies was to be made at all by me". 21 But the Ambassador was "incommunicado" from the cause that Brand represented. How bitter the irony that the man who was thought of by some East Europeans as a "good man", saw them as "criminal Jews".
Thus, the State Department found a valuable ally in the assimilated Jew Steinhardt, and it is no surprise when we are informed that Long subscribed to his views and went a step further. Long was of the feeling that Steinhardt was not only right with respect to Russian and Polish Jews, but that his observations could be applied to "the lower level of all Slav population". When American Jewish leaders approached Roosevelt to admit more refugees, he confronted them with Steinhardt's reports. Roosevelt would continue to maintain that he sympathized with the plight of the refugees, but that he rejected "any plan which would allow any organization whether it be Rabbi Wise or MacDonald or William Green to recommend finally that any person abroad whom they had not seen be admitted to this country." Thus concludes Druks, because of such diplomacy, because of the Nazi’s terror, and because of the division and sluggishness of Jewish leadership, some six million Jews were exterminated in Europe. 22
In The Holocaust Victims Accuse (1977), there is a section dealing with "Stephen Wise: The Chief Saboteur" which describes the activities of Wise and Congressman Sol Bloom, to prevent legislation in both houses of Congress leading to the formation of the War

Refugee Board in 1944. American Orthodoxy led by the Agudas HaRabonim kept up a continuous battle for such a board. Two days before Yom Kippur in 1943, four hundred rabbis staged a mass demonstration in Washington calling for the rescue of the European Jews. They brought their petitions before the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. Their appeals saw fruition when their measure passed both houses, forcing Roosevelt on January 22, 1944, to create the War Refugee Board. 23

In an article in The New York Times Magazine of April 18, 1982, Lucy S. Davidovicz maintained that the "five hundred" Orthodox rabbis who came to Washington on Oct. 6, 1943 were brought by the "Irgunists" to "dramatize" their case, implying a belittlement of the "Irgunists" and their "Orthodox" cohorts. "They had no appointment with the President, for he had been told by a confidant, Judge Samuel Rosenman, that the group behind this petition was not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry." 24 Rothkoff in The Silver Era (1981) has a different version of what Rosenman told Roosevelt. They were, he said, "a group of rabbis who just recently left the darkest period of the medieval world. I unsuccessfully tried to stop their coming since they really represent no one." 25 Davidowicz overlooks not so much this comment,but the mentality that underlies it.
Who were the rabbis that were fancifully thought to "represent no one"? Their leading figures were Rabbis Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, and Avrohom Kalmanowitz whose Mirrer Yeshivah had found refuge in Shanghai. Rabbi Silver supported the Emergency Committee to save the Jewish People of Europe organized by the Revisionist group, who as the Irgun, opposed Britain's restrictive immigration and anti-Jewish policies in Palestine. Silver declared that:
The Agudat Harabanim supported this committee, despite the fact that it was sponsored by the Revisionist party and was, therefore, opposed by the other Zionist parties for partisan reasons. But we supported any serious rescue plan, regardless of its source. 26
Furthermore, Rothkoff records that Silver once declared that "Orthodoxy has empathy with the Revisionists because they share a common fate. Both are pushed around by the Establishment." 27
Davidowicz is almost patronizing towards this group of rabbis, calling them "venerable and impressive--. . The incident did not create much of a stir." What did these rabbis ask for that it "did not create much of a stir"? Rabbi Silver's appeal to the President cut to the bone of the issues:
To the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, God protect him:
In the name of God, Almighty Creator of the Universe, Who commanded us in the Holy Torah, "Do not let the blood of your friend be spilled, I am the Lord," we cry out in our misery to the Lord, God of Heaven and Earth. A voice is heard aloft, the voice of the blood of our brethren, pure souls in the hundreds of thousands; children, infants, and elders, men and women crying out to us: Save us!
How will we be able to stand and pray on the Holy Day, the Day of Atonement, knowing that we had not fulfilled our duty? . . . Millions have already fallen, put to the fire and the sword. Tens of thousands, have perished of starvation, and of the most horrible manners of death--let the earth not cover their blood!
In view of this emergency situation, it is a sacred duty to take urgent measures for saving the Jewish people and especially:
. . .
d) to intervene with the neutral countries and influence them to allow the Jewish fugitives from the sword to take refuge, and to assure them haven and sustenance in these lands;
e) to open the gates of the democratic countries for refuge, and to open more widely the gates of our own country and to expedite the entrance of these refugees into the United States;
f) to open immediately the gates of the Land of Israel . . . ;
g) to establish a special agency for rescuing the remnants of the Jewish people in Europe. 28
These efforts finally contributed to the formation of the War Refugee Board. It was to be a special agency for rescue and aid to the war's victims. Contrary to what we might garner from Davidowicz, Rothkoff maintained that its representatives, stationed in neutral countries, devoted themselves with zeal and daring to rescue work despite the lateness of the hour. "They succeeded in saving some thousands of Jews in Roumania and Hungary." 29
Even though Davidowicz portrays Stephen Wise as earnestly active on behalf of Jews trapped in Europe, the impression she leaves is far from accurate. Furthermore, she makes the remarkable conclusion:
But rescuing the European Jews was an unachievable task. Most European Jews were inaccessible, beyond the reach not only of the American Jews, but even of the Allied armed forces. They were in Hitler's vise. The most dramatic illustration of their remoteness from rescue was the case of the Roumanian Jews. 30
The comment fits into a discerned pattern amongst Davidowicz's writings. J. Elias, in reviewing Davidowicz’s "Blaming the Jews: The Charge of Perfidy" in The Jewish Presence (1977), notes that Davidowicz has for some reason or other taken it upon herself to clear the Jewish leadership of charges that they were guilty of betraying their Eastern European brethren. Unfortunately:
Faint as her defense is, it is still too kind to these leaders. Stephen Wise and others knew relatively early what was going on and acceded to a cover-up; they failed to put public pressure on the governments, tried to silence those who did, and at crucial moments actually opposed rescue projects. It is strange for a historian, in belittling the work of the Irgunists, to write that "its one accomplishment . . . was that it . . . brought about the creation of The War Refugee Board", as if this had been a small thing. 31
Arthur D. Morse has observed in the concluding paragraphs of his work While Six Million Died (1967) that:
The War Refugee Board represented a small gesture of atonement by a nation whose apathy and inaction were exploited by Adolf Hitler. As he moved systematically toward the total destruction of the Jews, the government and the people of the United States remained bystanders. Oblivious to the evidence which poured from official and unofficial sources, Americans went about their business unmoved and unconcerned. Those who tried to awaken the nation were dismissed as alarmists, cranks or Zionists. Many Jews were as disinterested as their Christian countrymen. The bystanders to cruelty became bystanders to genocide. 32
The proof cited by Davidowicz that the fate of Roumanian Jewry exemplified that "rescuing the European Jews was an unachievable task" is presented differently in other sources. Davidowicz maintains that:
Now we know that Hitler's war against the Allies gave him the opportunity to pursue the war against the Jews. He would not willingly have surrendered them. He would not have sold them even for a price which the Allies could never have paid or offered. 33
True, that Hitler's war against the Allies was his "golden opportunity" to destroy the Jews. But that all Nazis would not have responded to bribes or threats is not so certain. Certainly when it came to even the upper echelons of the Nazi regime, there was a marked response to bribery, let alone military action. The Jews of America were in a position to undertake various overt and covert actions on behalf of their European brethren. Sadly, leading figures worked in the opposite direction.
The "co-operation" between Stephen Wise and the State Department in the failure to rescue the Jews of Roumania is corroborated in various works. When Ben Hecht placed an advertisement in New York's newspapers:

70,000 JEWS



explaining that three and a half million dollars would rescue the seventy thousand Roumanian Jews--Stephen Wise made a public statement in the name of the American Jewish Congress denying the "confirmation" of the offer from the Roumanian government. 34
Nora Levin in The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945, (1968), states that the State Department blocked the possible rescue of Jews from Roumania. Though it is in keeping with the rest of the work, Levin chooses to ignore the role of Wise in obstructing rescue efforts. Levin, like Davidowicz, seeks to put the entire blame on the State Department only. They both overlook the negative role of the President and those Jews who had access to him. Levin records that even though money had already been collected to be deposited in blocked bank accounts in Switzerland, the State Department maintained that the transaction would benefit the enemy. This was in spite of Treasury Secretary Morgenthau's observation that the State Department scoffed at economic warfare in other connections. 35
Quoting from Cordell Hull's Memoirs, Levin shows that whilst noting the State Department's reluctance to deposit money abroad, Hull admitted that the Nazis were susceptible to them. Hull notes, in an attempt to justify his actions for lack of money and staff, that "the Germans permitted Jews to leave only when they were amply paid to do so. We were reluctant to deposit sums of money to the credit of the Nazis, even though the deposits were to be made in Switzerland, were to be liquidated only after the end of the war, and apparently could not be used by the Nazi leaders." 36
Rabbi Eliezer Silver, writing in 1941, summed up the consternation of Orthodox Jewry with the President and State Department:
It is now the time to demonstrate in our capital. we must knock on the doors of the White House to demand that the State Department fulfill its promise to bring over the roshei yeshivah and their students. . . . We gave their names to the State Department and looked forward to prompt results . . . . The overseas representatives of the United States have hardened their hearts and placed obstacles in the path of the refugees . . . .How can our president be so cruel to Torah luminaries and scholars who wander in despair from city to city? 37
At the height of the war American Orthodoxy found itself to be the heir of the European legacy. In order to rebuild, it had to rescue as many who were able to transmit a refined and dynamic brand of Orthodox life and learning. As we have shown, this was an almost impossible task in the face of internal American opposition.
Determined Rays of Hope
There were significant, if unnoticed, rays of hope for American Jewry. Rothkoff records that the Vaad Hatzola (Jewish Rescue Committee) succeeded in bringing over the Kletsker Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Aharon Kotler who arrived in San Francisco on April 10, 1941. Rabbi Silver published a statement of welcome in May 1941 for Rabbi Kotler:
I heartily greet the great guest whom American Jewry is now privileged to welcome.
My dear friend the great gaon is the greatest teacher of Torah in our generation. Rabbi Aharon Kotler and his family have succeeded in leaving the continent of blood and reaching our country. I am certain that he will raise the level of Torah in America. We will now be able to educate great Torah scholars here. May his coming be for peace and success. 38
Rabbi Kotler devoted all his energies to rescue activities from the moment he arrived. His first public appearance was at the semi-annual convention of the Agudas Harabonim. Rabbi Silver introduced the new arrival to the assembled rabbis, calling on them to unite so as to "quench the great fire which was raging". In response, Rabbi Kotler stressed the urgency for saving the yeshivahs:
I must first thank the Agudat Harabanim and the Vaad Hatzalah for enabling me to reach these shores . . . . The Lithuanian schools remain intact and learning there is stronger than ever. . . they pleaded with me to leave so I could inspire American Jewry to labor with added dedication to save the Torah and its students.
. . . Remember your obligation at this dark hour. The Holy Ark, Torah scrolls, and their students are bleeding . . . . Little time is left and we must immediately act. Everyone must volunteer for this sacred task.
Rabbi Silver, you are right. We are the most sinful of all generations. Other nations totally sacrifice themselves for their survival. We do not do enough. If we only had the necessary funds, we could have already saved thousands of additional souls.
Everyone must do his share to help attain these means. 39
Government assistance was also essential, and certain writers have noted the aid of Treasury Secretary Morgenthau. Nora Levin, delving into "The Mogenthau Diaries VI--The Refugee Runaround", quotes Morgenthau:
We knew in Washington, from August 1942 on, that the Nazis were planning to exterminate all the Jews of Europe. Yet, for nearly 18 months after the first reports of the Nazi horror plan, the State Department did practically nothing. . . . 18 terrible months of inefficiency, buck-passing, bureaucratic delay and sometimes what appeared to be calculated obstructionism. . . . Lacking either the administrative drive or the emotional commitment they could not bring about prompt United States action on behalf of the desperate people. 40
On January 16, 1944, Morgenthau prepared a highly confidential document for the President, charging that certain State Department officials:
1. Utterly failed to prevent the extermination of Jews in German controlled Europe.

2. Hid their gross procrastination behind such window-dressing as "inter-governmental organizations to survey the whole refugee problem".

It concluded by saying that "the matter of rescuing the Jews from extermination is a trust too great to remain in the hands of men who are indifferent, callous and perhaps even hostile. The task is filled with difficulties. Only a fervent will to accomplish, backed by persistent and untiring effort, can succeed where time is so precious." 41
It was to Morgenthau that some of the newly arrived yeshivah leaders and rabbis turned for help in salvaging whatever could be pulled from the European churban. Rothkoff records that Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz of the Mirrer Yeshivah developed a unique and influential relationship with Morgenthau. Kalmanowitz was able to "influence" the State Department with Morgenthau’s help. It is claimed that Joseph J. Schwartz, a member of the Joint Distribution Committee declared "that there was a rabbi with a long white beard, who, when he cried, even the State Department listened." 42
As we have shown, the State Department was a rather large behemoth to move. But those like Rabbis Avrohom Kalmanowitz and Aharon Kotler managed to encourage the well informed Morgenthau to gain a measure of help in rescuing Jews. Rothkoff states that by December 1943, permission was granted for the resumption of communications with enemy occupied territory, both in China and Europe. This is significant because, for example, the entire Mirrer Yeshivah found itself in Shanghai after escaping from war-torn Lithuania, across Siberia, passing through Japan, and finding exile in China's "free city": Shanghai. The yeshivah survived the war intact. At war's end, they were to establish themselves in New York, with some members going further afield.
The activities of Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz, "President" of the Mirrer Yeshivah, deserve special attention. Due to the fact that he had often traveled abroad before the war for fundraising, he possessed a Polish passport. Using that, he came to the United States in 1940, managing to obtain Polish passports for the trapped students and staff of the yeshivah from the Polish embassy in America. The salvaging of the yeshivah became the central concern of his life. It was mainly due to his efforts that the entire yeshivah survived and finally re-opened in the United States in 1947.
In order to understand the emphasis placed on saving the yeshivahs, we must grasp something of their centrality in traditional Jewish life. Many Jews long assimilated in America did not understand the importance given to saving the Talmudical Academies. During the war, differences arose between the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Vaad Hatzolah. The JDC objected to the Vaad's special concern for rabbinic leaders and yeshivah students. Rabbi Eliezer Silver addressed himself to this complaint when he wrote to the JDC on June 9, 1942:
One may well understand why we, more than others, are so much concerned about the lot of the yeshivot--the Jewish Academies of old standing--and their individual students and instructors. We see in them the very essence of Judaism and we see in this element the very perpetuation of Judaism . . . therefore we established the Vaad Hatzala. 43
We have underlined the key sentence for it stands at the heart of the matter. Those rabbinical scholars in America, like Rabbi Silver and the newly arrived Rabbis Kalmanowitz and Kotler, realized that the fateful swing of history was about to create a new world based on the remnants of the old world that was smoldering. It was not a new experience in Jewish history. Neither was it a new experience in the tortuous struggle to survive of Jewish education as it existed for thousands of years.
Thus we find the rabbinic leaders in Europe during the war talking in terms not unfamiliar to students of Jewish history. When the European roshei yeshivah learned of plans to transfer various scholars en masse to the United States, they decided that all the yeshivahs should be dealt with as one institution. On July 7, 1940, Rabbi Kotler wrote to Rabbi Silver:
We rejoice to learn of the noble idea to transfer the sanctuaries of the Torah, the sacred yeshivot, to the United States. These holy intentions can be compared to the deeds of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai at the time of the Temple's destruction. For the sake of the soul of our nation and its survival, action must be quickly undertaken. This is an instance when punctilious individuals rush to do the mitzvah.
Nevertheless, we all plead with you to act for the salvation of all the schools together. There are many important reasons for this, but above all, the merit of all the yeshivot is greater than the merit of any individual one. 44
In spite of the iron barriers erected to keep "undesirables" at bay, a few managed to elude the watchmen. America, like Jerusalem besieged by the Romans, was controlled by those who knew not how to listen to the counsel of the Torah's sages. It was left to individual sages here and individual sages there to salvage the remnants of the Torah scholars and Torah scholarship.
1 Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 626-627.

2 Max I. Dimont, The Jews In America: The Roots, History, and Destiny of American Jews (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), pp. 233-234.

3 Bernard Martin, A History of Judaism: Volume II: Europe and the New World (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. 426.

4 Ibid., pp. 424-427.

5 Joseph Elias, "Dealing With 'Churban Europa' ", The Jewish Observer, October 1977, pp. 10-12.

6 Ibid., p. 13.

7 Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Silver Era in American Orthodoxy: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and his Generation (Jerusalem: Phillip Feldheim, 1981), pp. 157-159.

8 Ibid., p. 161.

9 Ibid. pp. 162-163

10 Agudath Israel of America, The Struggle and the Splendor: A Pictorial overview_of Agudath Israel of America (New York: Agudath Israel of America, 1982), p. 55.

11 Rothkoff, The Silver Era, pp. 174-175.

12 Ibid., p. 176.

13 Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's "Final Solution" (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), pp. 202; 65.

14 Ibid., pp. 204-208.

15 Druks, Failure to Rescue, pp. 68-70.

16 Morse, While Six Million Died, p. 272.

17 Ibid., pp. 274-275.

18 Druks, Failure to Rescue, p. 11.

19 Ibid., pp. 11-12.

20 Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, p. 725

21 Hecht, Perfidy, p. 223.

22 Druks, Failure to Rescue, pp. 12-16.

23 Shonfeld, Holocaust Victims Accuse, pp. 49-52.

24 Lucy S. Davidowicz, "American Jews and the Holocaust", The New York Times Magazine, April 18, 1982, p. 111.

25 Rothkoff, The Silver Era, p. 219.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., p. 222.

28 Ibid., pp. 220-221.

29 Ibid., pp. 222-223.

30 Davidowicz,"American Jews", p. 109.

31 Elias, "Dealing With 'Churban Europa' ", p. 15.

32 Morse, While Six Million Died, pp. 302-309.

33 Davidowicz, "American Jews", p. 114.

34 Hecht, Perfidy, pp. 191-192.

35 Nora Levin, The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 671.

36 Ibid., p. 675.

37 Rothkoff, The Silver Era, pp. 202-203.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid., p. 204.

40 Levin, The Holocaust, p. 669.

41 Morse, While Six Million Died, pp. 76-80

42 Rothkoff, The Silver Era, p. 210.

43 Ibid., pp. 208-209.

44 Ibid., p. 195.

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