"Resistance and War": The Holocaust in American Jewish Education, 1945-1960

Article excerpt

In The World Over Storybook, a textbook published in 1952 and used widely in American Jewish schools throughout the early postwar period, Reuben Davis recounted the Jewish experience under Nazism in a story entitled "Hannah Szenes, She Fought for Freedom," writing that "Hannah Szenes was a Palestinian girl who died during the war.... She willingly left the freedom she found in Palestine to return to Nazi-held Europe. She knew she might die if she were caught, and she did not want to die. But she gave her life so that freedom-loving people everywhere might live." (1) Textbook author Mordecai H. Lewittes echoed this theme in his 1957 Highlights of Jewish History: "Among those who have been added to the long list of Jewish heroes are the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. 'Whether we live or die is not important,' they said, 'but how we live and how we die.'" (2)

These quotations capture the most salient feature of American Jewish education's treatment of the Holocaust from 1945 to the beginning of the Eichmann affair in 1960. (3) Jewish history textbooks, play collections, children's literature, and curricular materials published in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s frequently presented selective versions of wartime events, revolving almost exclusively around narratives of Jewish heroes and heroines. According to these accounts--most often describing the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, the life of Hannah Senesh, and Jewish rescue efforts in Palestine--the Holocaust represented Jewry's strength, victory, and courage more than its victimization, vulnerability, and suffering. Educational materials stressed acts of physical resistance and rescue and emphasized the initiative and self-reliance exhibited by Jews during the Second World War. The loss of six million Jews between 1939 and 1945 recedes into the background of these accounts; the lesson of the Holocaust according to these narratives is that Jews in Europe took control of their own fate and helped to defeat Nazism.

This early approach to Holocaust education reflected Jewish educators' efforts to inspire loyalty, self-esteem, and ethnic identity in the next generation of American Jews. Teachers pursued this goal by integrating American and Jewish interests and values in their interpretations of current events and the Jewish past. In the 1940s and 1950s, this meant reconciling the interests and values of Cold-War American culture and Zionist culture. The Holocaust hero who emerged in Jewish history texts was an amalgam of images and ideals, a figure who embodied both the fortitude of a Maccabean zealot and the patriotism of an American freedom-fighter.

Looking to such heroic narratives of the 1940s and 1950s broadens understanding of the evolution of American Jewish Holocaust consciousness in three ways. First, scholarly assessments of the early postwar years have focused primarily on perceptions of the Holocaust among Jewish writers, intellectuals, artists, and communal leaders. This scholarship accurately characterizes such individuals as relatively silent on the topic of the Holocaust in the 1940s and 1950s, as signified by few references to the destruction of European Jewry in their public statements, artistic works, and writings. Scholars attribute this silence to a variety of factors, primary among them that American Jews were eager to partake in the postwar victory spirit, did not want to call attention to their recent victimization, and were reluctant to criticize Germany, the United States's new Cold-War ally. (4) Looking to reactions to the Holocaust among Jewish educators--who, unlike the aforementioned, discussed the Holocaust among themselves and out of the public spotlight--adds a new dimension to this analysis. It illuminates how such broader cultural pressures did not quell all discussion of the European Jewish catastrophe. Rather, these pressures encouraged Jews to address the Holocaust in a manner that conformed to the ideals and concerns of the wider culture. …