Saving the Jews of the Soviet Union

By Golden, Peter | Midstream, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Saving the Jews of the Soviet Union


Golden, Peter, Midstream


Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, The American Jewish Effort, 1967-1989, by Henry Feingold, Syracuse University Press, 2007. 400 pp. $45.00.

Every once in a great while, you pick up a work of history, and as you begin to turn the pages, you come to understand that you are lucky enough to be reading a book that represents the culmination of a lifetime of scholarship. Such is the case with Henry L. Feingold's, Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, The American Jewish Effort, 1967-1989.

Feingold is professor of history emeritus at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and he has written a number of celebrated books on American Jewry and edited the highly acclaimed five-volume series, The Jewish People in America. Yet it is his 1995 collection of essays, Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust, and his classic 1970 study, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945, that most informs the remarkable achievement of Silent No More.

Feingold has many strengths as an historian, not the least of which is his artfulness in constructing a well-paced, lucid narrative. However, the greatest strength of his work on the Holocaust has been that he is more interested in presenting a detailed, nuanced portrait than apportioning blame and forgiveness--no small virtue when writing about the Six Million. I suspect that it was his two earlier explorations into that subject which provided Feingold with a discerning eye for the interplay of cultural antisemitism, government red tape, flaccid diplomacy, the internecine squabbles among American Jewish organizations, and the regrettable, though still insurmountable, facts of realpolitik, all of which contributed to the failure of American Jewry to convince their President and countrymen to step in before it was too late and rescue Europe's Jews from the Nazis.

But make no mistake about it. As Feingold writes in Silent No More, by the early 1960s "the Holocaust was on the road to becoming a paradigmatic episode in the American Jewish experience." The author's deep understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on American Jewry--the community's guilt and regret and simmering anger echoed in the phrase, "Never Again!"--enables him to place the appearance of the Soviet Jewry movement in its proper historical and emotional context and to delineate how the issue itself, through the efforts of grassroots activists and organized American Jewry, became entwined in the Cold War. The shadow that the Holocaust casts over Feingold's book is apparent from the rifle, Silent No More, which is a reference to the words of the world's most famous survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Nobel-Prize winning author, Elie Wiesel, who, after touring the Soviet Union in 1965, returned to the United States filled with compassion for the silence of the Russian Jews, but tormented "by the silence of the Jews I live among today."

Wiesel later wrote a book about his travels, The Jews of Silence, but as Feingold observes, it was the 1968 publication of While Six Million Died by Arthur Morse, a researcher for CBS, that fueled the passions of the young American Jews who joined the grassroots groups dedicated to the cause of Soviet Jewry.

As Feingold skillfully demonstrates, the American Jewish effort to assist Jews in the Soviet Union was both a movement dedicated to the future and the past, to those who hoped to free themselves from the Kremlin's iron grip and to those who had perished in the Nazi flames, a movement proclaiming that at last we, as a people, are silent no more.

Of course, the Holocaust is not the beginning of the story. In the opening sections of his book, Feingold sets the stage for what is to come, and he has a profound appreciation for both the wheel and ironies of history. He describes the basic connection established by the immigration of Russia's Jews to America, and the efforts of financier Jacob Schiff, with the assistance of Louis Marshall and Cyrus Adler, to tie the treatment of Russian Jews to the business relationship between the United States and Russia, exactly what the Jackson-Vanik Amendment later attempted to do via public policy. …

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