THE HOLOCAUST: WE MUST REMEMBER
Roger Fredinburg – Host
30-Hour Series of Interviews broadcast on the Roger Fredinburg Radio Program
2-4-1998 Thirteenth Program in Series
Guest: Dr. Henry Feingold
Book: BEARING WITNESS: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust
ISBN-10: 0815626703 and ISBN-13: 978-0815626701
Roger: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen! It’s a pleasure to be here once again to continue our series. I still have a very difficult time, each evening when we endure this topic, I find myself more and more emotionally disturbed about the truth with regard to history. When you hear from the mouths of the people who lived through the holocaust it’s just an entirely different picture that is drawn from what many of us got in our public school system. Fascinating stories we’ve heard! Tonight’s I’m sure will be no different.
Our guest this evening is Dr. Henry Feingold. His book is,“Bearing Witness: How American and It’s Jews Responded to the Holocaust’.” He’s a professor of history at Baruch College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and we want to welcome him here. Professor, hello!
Dr. Feingold: Hi, how’re you doing?
Roger: Just fine! It’s nice to have you here, Dr. Feingold, it’s really a privilege! I’ve had the opportunity to thumb through your book over the last couple of days. What a piece!
Dr. Feingold: Thank you very much. I like to write.
Roger: Henry, what other things have you written? You’ve written quite a bit over the years.
Dr. Feingold: A Five volume history of American Jewry I edited called, “The Jewish People in America.” I wrote Volume Four: “A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream 1920-1945”, is probably now the definitive work on the American Jewish experience. I’ve done “Zion in America:the Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present,” .I’ve also written a “Midrash on American Jewish History” and four books on the Holocaust. You wouldn’t want to know what other things! Ha, ha!
Roger: Ha, ha, ha! You must enjoy it to be that prolific!
Dr. Feingold: Well, some people like to write and it’s one of the things I like to do. It’s what I do. It’s how I invent myself.
Roger: Henry, you’re the first guest I’ve had on with regard to taking this subject on from the American Jew’s point of view. That’s an interesting subject, it really is! First of all, with all your discovery over the years, you talk about the “uniqueness of the holocaust.” I’d like you to tell me exactly what you mean by that.
Dr. Feingold: That’s such a difficult subject. I’m sometimes scared, there’s something very dangerous there, because my approach is Judeo-centric and not everyone buys it. There are various people; some people think it’s unique because of the unique intentionality. Some people think it’s unique because it shows modernity in its full scale; that brilliant European railroad grid, that chemistry in the Zyklon-B gas, that almost mundane familiarity of bringing the raw materiel to death factories, the tolling of the dead by managers—so many units per hour —boasting between those who died in Treblinka and Auschwitz, whose camp was more efficient! That has a kind of almost boring familiarity to it! IT IS OUR INDUSTRIAL PROCESS! Some people think it’s that!
I think the holocaust is unique because the Jews of Europe were unique. I don’t unique because of “covenantal choseness”, after all, every group does feel unique. That’s why they are a group! I mean unique in the role that they played in the development of the European idea; that the Vienna-Berlin-Budapest axis that gave us Einstein, Freud and Kafka —unique in forming a universalizing elite!
I say it’s dangerous because Hitler also believed that the Jews were unique. He believed they were uniquely demonic! It’s kind of suspicious that a historian of Jewish history, who happens to be Jewish, should claim that there is a unique quality here. By unique I mean, valance, I mean weight, I mean importance! Unfortunately, in this particular process of the holocaust, you don’t have to rely on the words of the historian or the researcher. You can, in fact, wait for subsequent events.
If the French Revolution was unique or if it had a certain valence, a certain weight and subsequent history should have a resonance, it should change. Not everything in history is important; the discovery of the wheel is more important than the discovery of the toothpick. So, that we should be seeing a change in European history and a change in that other historical canvas which I am interested in, Jewish history. I must say, I go to Europe very often and I don’t really see much of a change. Europe does not miss it’s Jews and it has gone on as a prosperous area.
Then there is this thing you talked about in your introduction, you can’t pick up a newspaper today without reading something about the holocaust. I’ve heard that 6% of our literature today, our published books, have some impingement on it. You could say it’s a Jewish conspiracy, which it isn’t! It is the fact that we are listening to the sound of an extraordinary event, cracking into history, making that noise! Otherwise I see very little in European history that is unique.
It is on the Jewish historical canvas; however, that an extraordinary change has taken place; a people that was originally organized only in time, is once again organized in space. It has re-entered history. In that intractability of the Middle East Conflict, there is a linkage to the holocaust. The Arab world does not feel that it participated in the holocaust, yet it feels it is paying the price. We sometimes hear that argument in Arab propaganda. So there is almost… when I listen to the news about Iraq and our intention to bomb it, I sometimes feel almost eerie that there is something here that is happening, that had a line to it. So, on the Jewish historical canvas, it’s an enormous change!
An ideational change in the European historical canvas is that somehow everyone is trying to break their teeth on the holocaust idea. We don’t have very good art about it yet or very good theater; but, it doesn’t seem to go away! I don’t think it’s merely a conspiracy to make noise, to earn what one sociologist says, “ a psychic income to make points through the income of victimization.”
I think it’s a very interesting thing we are watching. Of course, I’m interested in it! I think we are dealing with a fantastic “something” that I have not quite been able to explain to myself; but, it is an event of enormous valence! I can’t even think of a historical word; I have to go to chemistry to explain it. We will see. The next 50 years will tell us. It is now 50 years after the holocaust and rather than this event getting softer and becoming contextualized and disappearing in history, perhaps overshadowed by other events, it is in fact getting louder every year! Even as the survivors disappear. So, we are dealing with something very special here.
Roger: Well, I’ve heard the term about silence being deafening? That’s kind of an oxymoron; but, I think it applies to what you are trying to communicate, that it’s almost impossible to explain.
Dr. Feingold: Yes.
Roger: The semantics that surround the issue have for 50 years now dominated many cultures. It’s a fascinating topic. Henry, we’ve got to take a short break here. Please hang on and we’ll be right back.
Roger: We have Henry Feingold as our guest this evening. We’re talking about his book, “Bearing Witness: How America and It’s Jews Responded to the Holocaust,” Henry, welcome back!
You know, I want to move into America during the time of the holcaust. I’d like you to describe for me what you discovered about how Jewish America responded to the holocaust.
Dr. Feingold: That, again, is a very, very touchy subject for survivors who are living in America today. Enough was not done. Of course, we who were here know that enough could never have been done! So, we’re in an endless problem which leads to constant flagelation that we did not do enough. After all, 6 million Jews are evidence to show that not enough was done!
Once you get behind that, you have to wonder about certain things. The power of American Jewry to really change government priorities during wartime has to be examined and we get into enormously difficult problems because as part of the anti-semitic imagination, the thing that is the common denominator to that imagination is the imagination that Jews have so much power. So, the anti-semite feels the Jew have too much power and the Jew knows that he doesn’t have enough power.
When you compare American Jewry to other ethnic groups, the Irish-Americans or the German- Americans, we find there’s quite a different story. The German-Americans who were the largest “hypenated” group here in 1914 were not able to stop America from going to war against it’s Father Land. The Irish-Americans were trying to play the game called “Pushing the Lines,” too.
In the end they were not able to stop the Anglo-American alliance which dominated international relations in the 20th Century.
American Jewry, contrary to the imagination of Judeo-phobes, was not an organized group capable of conspiring in some way. In fact, its hallmark was that it was extraordinarily divided and dis-united and highly dynamic. It’s that way today. We sometimes wish that American Jewry had been able to speak to the Roosevelt administration with one voice, something more might have happened; but, even if that were true, it probably wouldn’t have changed very much because we have very few historic examples where an ethnic group in America pulled public policy away from the national self-interest, or what was viewed as the national self-interest, in order to serve it’s own needs. To give you an example, some people point to Greece and Turkey very recently. But, I can think of very few examples where that happened. So, the Jews of America during the holocaust are not noticeably different than other groups. In fact, I would say they were probably slightly more effective in getting the American government to articulate the Jewish interest, not that much more; but, certainly some more.
The question we really are speaking about is the question of power. How much power did the Jews have to change policy during a war, during a total war? How do you measure that power? What’s the difference between power and influence in America? We do not have the exercise of direct power. So, that’s one of the great problems we have. The problem of measuring the activities of the witness; whether it is the Vatican, or Switzerland, or the International Red Cross or American Jewry is far more complex historically than trying to tell the narrative of what happened to victims or the perpetrators because the victim ostensibly had some kind of choice; he could have been indifferent, he could have been opposed to having any action or he could have simply been neutral. When you have a choice you have an entree for the moral athlete, for moralism which is the bane of all good history. Then you have the problem of trying to define what really happened. So, this problem of American Jewry’s reaction, just as the problem of the Vatican’s reaction or Switzerland’s reaction is extraordinarily difficult to handle because it has a comparative aspect and it also has the problem of choice and it’s very much affected by morality in a post-hoc situation. It’s true that nothing was done and that more could have always been done; but, once you get beyond that, what was really possible for a group that was divided, that had limited power, that was itself unable — it did not have any army or a sovereign legality to act on the national stage by itself– had to act through America, through the American government. How much could such a group have done? Are we assigning it a responsibility which it did not have the power to meet and then end up getting an endless whipping because not enough was done? That’s not only true of the Jews, by the way, it’s true of every one of the witnesses of which we expected much more; but, we have never really imagined the power they had, especially before Stalingrad, before March 1943 when many of the witnesses themselves were on the edge of become victims! It’s a hard problem!
Roger: Yes; but, there’s this guilt factor and I’m not clear about the dynamics about the guilt thing. American Jews are people who escaped the Final Solution, so to speak, those people feeling guilty that they didn’t suffer as much as others. I don’t understand that!
Dr. Feingold: Ha, ha, ha! Yes, it’s very true! It is the defining act in American Jewry because while we, in the prosperity created by the war economy, were beginning to move to suburbia and sending our kids to the best schools, the brethren, our kin in Europe, were being baked! The historical cookie crumbled in a terrible way! In a sense, we were doing well while terrible things were happening to them! The juxtaposition itself posed problems for us. So, there is a feeling that not enough was done. In many cases the escape into getting the house in the suburbs and finally getting that car, of coming out of the Depression — if you talk to American Jews today, very few really remember fully what was happening— that credibility problem. It may very well be that they were preoccupied as most Americans were with day to day events. After all, the Depression created enormous private events. While the Jews were probably the most active group in the public sector, more politically astute, reading more newspaper, writing more Letters to the Editor more often, more engaged in the political process, they were not all involved in concern about their brethren. It depended on the generation.
Jews like my own family who came here in 1939 had an immediate visceral link. They understood it! But, what about those Jews who came before World War I and whose links to kith and kin had become much more remote, much more removed? It was much more difficult for them to imagine. So we find, for example, the American Jewish Committee represented the uptown Jews, the native-born wealthy Jews. In 1933 only 17% of the American Jewish population was still foreign born. The older native-born had become much more American, far less conscious of their European families. They had removed themselves from that and they reacted as other Americans would, who did not have blood-ties.
The American Jewish Congress, on the other hand, another national defense organization which had in its rank and file many of the children of people who stemmed from the eastern European immigrants which were suffering this terrible bloodletting, had a far more visceral response. Yet, we find that these people did not know what to do. They would have these huge rallies, crying in public, “do something!” They sent rabbis to Washington D.C., they staged huge panoramas and plays and tried everything to get the public to understand what was happening. It was a public, of course, that was preoccupied with other things. The American people did not go to war singing, “Let’s Remember Auschwitz,” they went to war singing, “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor.”
Roger: Absolutely. Professor, we’ve got to take a break. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Henry Feingold is our guest, discussing his book, “Bearing Witness: How America’s Jews Responded to the Holocaust.” We’ll come back and talk more about what America really knew. That may shock you!
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! Thank you so much for joining us during these Holocaust specials. It’s a real privilege and honor to be bringing these to you every week during this series. I’m enjoying it and I hope you are as well. Our guest this evening is Professor Henry Feingold. His book is, “Bearing Witness: How America’s Jews Responded to the Holocaust.”
Alright, professor, we’re back! We talked about what the Jews were trying to do. I’m looking back in history – what could you do? They had marches, they had demonstrations, they sent rabbis to Washington. Then, of course, there was this preoccupation, obviously, with the assault on Pearl Harbor. But, you had in office as the president at that time, Mr. Roosevelt. What did he know? I mean, the question reall comes down to this, I think, in its basic terms; if the United States broadly had known what was going on in Europe at the time with the Jews, would that have been enough to get us into the war?
Dr. Feingold: No. The democratic system that you and I treasure so highly would have yielded a “No” response, a “No” even to the entrance of Jewish children and Jewish refugees into this country in the midst of the Depression. That’s what the consensus was. It would have required an enormous act of political courage for Roosevelt to have gone against such an opinion. It would have cost him political points. Roosevelt’s main objective between 1938 and 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred was to bring this divided, depressed nation into a war which it did not want to fight. He never really did succeed in doing that. He got as far as an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic. He had promised Britain all kinds of things with the Atlantic Charter that was signed in August of 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in a sense did for Roosevelt what he could not do for himself. Then the decision was made that the war in Europe would come first. For many Americans that was insufficient, it was always the war against Japan, the war in Asia that came first. It certainly was that way for General MacArthur. So, in a sense, we never won that battle, this nation went to war to remember Pearl Harbor.
It’s Roosevelt’s great political genius, I think, to be able to hold this nation together and to do what he did. We have to view what he did and did not do about the Jews, not even the admission of refugee children under the Wagner-Rogers Act that would have allowed 10,000 children to come here without visas. He didn’t do that. He probably knew that there were 120 professional anti-semitic organizations, there was Father Coughlin. Jews were not winning any medals for popularity in the United States. The anti-semitic imagination took to calling the Roosevelt administration not the New Deal; but, the “Jew Deal” ostensibly because Roosevelt, like Al Smith, had appointed more Jews to high places, more conspicuous high places, although today our tabulations indicate that Italian-Americans and Polish-Americans and Ukrainian-Americans were equally well treated. Actually, Hoover appointed just as many Jews to the court system as Roosevelt, just as high by proportion. But, it certainly looked that way! Adlai Stevenson who later gained an adoration, not unlike Roosevelt did among Jews, complained that in Washington every senator had his Jew behind him. They Jews did, in fact, make their presence in the national capital as advisors, as pundits, as journalists.
For the first time, Roosevelt’s New Deal resonated a certain part of Jewish political culture that was very important, the “benevolent state” doing good things. So Jews, in a sense, had three worlds, we say in Yiddish, “ the world, that other world, and Roosevelt” (actual Yiddish words are omitted by transcriber) . The Jews gave Roosevelt the highest percentage of votes of any ethnic group. They were the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency and, oddly enough, they did not switch to the Democratic Pary until 1928! They were actually quite new arrivals! It was the other Roosevelt, the Teddy Roosevelt, that really brought Jews into politics. His name was on their citizenship papers and they voted Republican in the 1920s. In the 1930s they changed to this new urban ethnic coalition and became Roosevelt’s staunch supporters, even in the election of 1940 after other ethnic groups had sharply subsided in their concern and their love of Roosevelt. The Jews actually raised their concern and that’s very interesting because they knew of his falling behind in their needs in the foreign policy area. Nevertheless, who else was there? There was Thomas Dewey who had a suspicious mustache and who represented that other camp! They liked Wendell Wilkie; but, he too was a Republican. So, the Jews had to depend on the less certain rewards for political loyalty because there was no Jewish leader on the scene like Stephen Wise, no Joseph Proskauer who could have threatened Roosevelt with the removal of the Jewish vote if he did not do what was part of the Jewish agenda. I think that’s really were we really have to conclude that Roosevelt knew that he had
the Jews in his pocket. So the normal political transaction of threatening the loss of votes was really not possible for the Jews.
Roger: We’re entering a time in history, Henry, where many of the people who remember will no longer be with us. Most of them are going to be gone in a very short time. What then?
Dr. Feingold: My own feeling is that while it’s true that the survivors were very instrumental in building the museum in Washington D.C. and echoing what happened to them, and that some of the noise we hear that will pick up to a crescendo in April which is Holocaust Month; but, some of the noise may in fact stem from them. My own sense is a little different. I think what we’re hearing is really the resonance of an enormous event, and important event in history. I’ve been teaching the Holocaust since 1968. I was probably one of the first to do so. It’s a very difficult subject to teach and it is easily mistaught. My classes are not primarily Jewish. They used to be; but, now everyone takes that course. We opened up a class at my school this year and we usually get an enrollment of perhaps 20. We’ve got 75 youngsters in there! When I asked them why, it’s not because it’s in a certain good period. It’s because they’ve seen Schindler’s List and because the holocaust has entered into their consciousness. It really fits into our own paranoic dream that the world conspires against us. In a sense, they’ve all become European Jews! Life has become tougher, even though in terms of material wealth they’re doing quite well. So, I think what we’re seeing here is a kind of resonance.
Those who argue that it is, in fact, the survivors who want to be remembered— of course they do! But, I suggest that really it is not unseemly. I’m kind of surprised that people react so adversely to some of it. Perhaps there is a little bit too much noise. But, when your neighbor’s house is on fire and you see it, you must make the warning. Roosevelt said, “you must lend them your garden hose.” I say you must make a warning. The survivors have been to the abyss. They’ve seen how thin the veneer of civilization is. They are the ones who have witnessed it. They could be quiet. They could say, “You did not do anything for us! We will not warn you.” But, in an age of massive affirmation, perhaps even innocence and hope, the very people that should be cynical and skeptical are the ones who are yelling, “The world is on fire! The veneer is so thin. Be careful! This is what we have learned!” I think we should listen. They do it even though some people condemn them for it.
Roger: Hold right there, Henry! We’ve got to take a short break and we’ll be right back. Professor Henry Feingold is with us. His book is, “Bearing Witness: How America’s Jews Responded to the Holocaust.” It’s a great book and we’ll tell you how to get it. Don’t go away!
Roger: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! Professor Henry Feingold is with us for the Holocaust Special this evening. “Bearing Witness: How America’s Jews Responded to the Holocaust.” Henry, how do people get your book if they want to read it?
Dr. Feingold: Well, I guess they go to Syracuse University Press or it’s in local bookstores. Barnes and Noble has it.
Roger: Amazon.com on the web? Do you know if it’s there?
Dr. Feingold: Yes!
Roger: Okay, so we can find it pretty easily then.
Dr. Feingold: Yes, it’s available.
Roger: I want to just say that if there’s anyone out there that has a question or a comment before the hour ends, we’ll be glad to entertain those if you call in.
Henry, you talk about this shot across the bow, this warning from those who witnessed the holocaust, to the rest of us. Yet, when I look across this landscape of this ever-shrinking globe of ours whether its Rwanda or Bosnia or even some of the tactics being used in our own country if you look at the Waco incident or the way the IRS goes in with SWAT teams to get the evil “tax non-filers”! I’m just wondering, what is the message? What are we supposed to be warned about? What should we look out for?
Dr. Feingold: I think what you need to look out for is self-commanding bureaucracy that doesn’t even have to be triggered, that is a machine that does not have a human dimension, that simply solves problems—any problems! That’s really what we saw; the facelessness, the depersonalization, all the things that we were afraid of!
You know, it wasn’t only the Nazi bureaucracy that was guilty of murder during World War II. One reads through the American documents and realizes the euphemistic vocabulary. The Germans converted all victims into what they called “pieces.” We speak not of “Jews” in our documents. The Germans speak only of “Jews”. We speak of “political refugees” A euphemistic vocabulary! In fact, the code word for the Final Solution which was originally “resettlement” was used much more in American documents and then picked up in German documents. The bureaucracy’s heartlessness was the same; the obtuseness, the inurement! These were not people, these were so many units that had to be processed!
I think that when you speak of the IRS and you speak of the machine that we face process and to govern a massive large and numerous world, I always look for that kind of “Do Not Bend, Fold or Spindle,” mentality that makes us stand in line, that makes us faceless and makes us a problem. Something happens in the inurement! So, I think that’s a terrific question! Where is the enemy?
I don’t want to sound paranoic and I know I’m not being too smart; but it is somehow in that bureaucracy, in that bureaucracy that can be told, “solve this problem” and ends up by killing people in large numbers! We had that here, too. Of course, much less so than other places in the world. I see that in the Soviet Union. I’ve just come back. I’m sure in China, too. The “facelessness” of the bureaucracy because you need a large bureaucracy when you have a totalitarian system that has something massive to do; to change the human being, to make the “New Nazi Man”, the “New Socialist Man”, to not let that human being alone! That requires an enormous change, to social engineer it! So, whenever I see it, I wonder about it. I think that we in America have gotten away from it, not entirely of course, but it’s much less so here because of the nature of our people. They just resist it automatically. They have that sense that, “I am a worthwhile person.” You have to go sometimes to the Soviet Union, and even today, to see what happens when a heartless bureaucracy weighs so heavily on a people. It destroys every civil institution; the church, everything — everything that could mediate between us and the power of government goes with such a bureaucracy!
Roger: And you know, the reason I bring this up is because if the warning is received, if we hear the warning and we react to what we’re being told, then we will not have to deal with this ever again! In other words, the holocaust will not only be remembered; but, the lessons will be remembered for all time!
When I look at a public school system that separates children from their parents, that denounces the traditions of American history, that really becomes without concern for people’s religious beliefs, that takes a parent’s rights and flushes them down the toilet! Not that it’s extreme; but, the beginning emotions are there. We see this ever increasing effort to take over the young people. Those are things that I look at and I say to myself, “Stop!” I hear the warning! Stop that! Don’t do that! The government doesn’t need to have the power to reshape the consciousness of my child, to socially engineer the children of America for some auspicious future that may not even come in world events! Just teach my children how to read and write and we’ll take care of the rest at home!
Dr. Feingold: You’re absolutely right!
Roger: And so, when I see those things, then I ask myself, “Is this how it starts?” Shouldn’t we—, early in the game before it get’s so powerful that you can’t stop it — shouldn’t we be saying stop?
Dr. Feingold: That’s right! When you hear them say the next time how few voted in the last election, remember that one of things that saves us is that we still have private lives. We can retreat to them, they have not been totally destroyed. There is a privateness and that’s where the freedom lies. In a sense, what we have to do is take care of that private sphere.
Certainly, there’s a great deal to be done, but I’m certainly not an expert on how one prevents tyranny. There is something aberrant about what happened in Germany, something special that is not yet fully understood. It may be possible that there is such a thing as a demonic leader. When one reads about the mesmerizing effect of this man who was nothing that we considered a man; he was not married, he did not drive a car, he did not go hunting, he didn’t play baseball— we would have considered him effete! Yet, he won the hearts of the German people! It’s not Hitler that’s interesting; it’s the relationship between Hitler and the German people that was so unbelievable strong. The spell was not broken until the very last day of the war. How did he get such a hold on the people?
Roger: Questions will forever be asked about this. Professor Henry Feingold has been our guest, ladies and gentlemen. His book is “Bearing Witness.” Thank you, sir! God bless! It was a wonderful interview!
Dr. Feingold: Thank you for having me!
Transcription is from MP3 file converted from original cassette with minimal editing by Chey Simonton.
Errors, if any, may be due to unintelligible sections of original 1997 audio technology. Unknown/unintelligible words are spelled phonetically.)