Why were American Jews of the World War II era not more effective in stopping the holocaust that killed more than 6 million Jews in Europe?
This haunting question and the search for answers to it preoccupied scholars at a special colloquim Sunday at American University's Pollin Center for the Study of Judaism in America.
The lack of strong national Jewish organizations a generation ago, divisions within the Jewish community and its consequent inadequacy as a political force all were cited as factors.
The reason cited most frequently was the fact that the magnitude of Nazi atrocities was so vast, so unprecedented, that it could not be comprehended at the time.
As the war progressed, explained Abe Karp, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Rochester, Jews as well as other Americans read the daily newspaper stories of death camps, mass deportations and the slaughter of Jews.
"They knew of the terror, they knew of the atrocities, but they did not know it was a holocaust," Karp said. "How would one know an event so horrible that a special term had to be fashioned to describe it?"
Karp, who described himself as "one of nine cousins in Poland, six of whom were murdered in the holocaust," cited John Hersey's book, "The Wall," which included an assertion that it was a work of fiction, not fact.
"This disclaimer is totally false," Karp said. "John Hersey didn't invent, he recorded" events in the Warsaw ghetto.
"Why did the publisher say it was fiction? Because even in 1950 [five years after World War II ended] if this were presented as fact, people would not believe it."
Jan Karski, professor of government at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a Polish citizen during the war, made the same point. He recounted how he had been armed with the facts of atrocities against the Jews in his homeland, then smuggled out of the country to try to gain a hearing in Washington.
He told of an interview with the late Justice Felix Frankfurter, who, upon hearing Karski's tale of horror, said "I don't believe you." According to Karski, the late Supreme Court justice went on to add: "I did not say you are lying, but I cannot conceive that what you are telling me can be true."
Henry Feingold of the City University of New York, contended that there was "no opportunity" for Jews during the war years "to threaten Roosevelt with the removal of the Jewish vote" as a means of pressing for military or other measures that might have saved more Jewish lives.
The Jewish community of that time was "in reality, atomized, fragmented -- barely able to get itself together," he said. American Jews then were divided on issues that are all but non-existent today -- the main one being Zionism, he said.
Lacking this cohesion within the Jewish community itself, he continued, there was no possibility of building alliances with other minority groups, adding, "We could not have moved Roosevelt without the help of other groups."
He said it was not indifference, it was not callousness, it was powerlessness, the perennial problem of Jews everywhere" that frustrated Jews of that era.
John Pehle, an attorney who headed the War Refugee Board within the government during World War II, said that the U.S. refrained from bombing Auschwitz, as many proposed, because "we were afraid that if we bombed Auschwitz, Hitler would say: "The United States agrees with us . . . they are killing Jews, too.'"
Later, he continued, after the war's strategists were persuaded that the death camp should be bombed, "the secretary of war said it was not feasible" because of the camp's distance from Allied bomber bases.
The explanation did not satisfy the noted Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, of the University of Toronto. "I have to keep asking," he said, "why Auschwitz was not bombed." It has been argued that even though Jewish prisoners would have died in a bombing, the camp would have been destroyed and its horrors brought to world attention earlier.
Fackenheim, who was imprisoned in Sachenhausen concentration camp for a time before emigrating from Germany to Canada, served as a rabbi during the war.
In the weekly services in his Candian congregation, he recalled, "I began to include a prayer for the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis that week." After about a month, he said, an elder of the congregation asked him to stop, arguing that "everybody knows what's going on -- why increase their anguish?" So I decided to stop [the special prayers]. Until this day I don't know if it was the right thing to do," Fackenheim said.
Like other members of the panel, Fackenheim warned against preoccupation with the past and questions of guilt, but instead urged Jews to look to the future.
Jews, he said, have a new commandment as a result of the holocaust: "You are forbidden to give Hitler a posthumous victory."
Fackenheim focused on the state of Israel as the fulfillment of that commandment, and pleaded for support of Israel to prevent a possible recurrence of the holocaust.
"The holocaust happened once, it can happen again," he said.
While he was sharply critical of the U.S. failure to support Israel at the United Nations, he also praised past American efforts on Israel behalf.
Referring to Israel and the United States, he said: "There are only two countries in all of human history whose symbol is 'Give me your poor'."