Letters, Summer 2020

The Supplicant and the Boss

David Dalin’s review of Rafael Medoff’s The Jews Should Keep Quiet (“Faith in Princes,” Spring 2020) raises questions as to where Dalin really stands on Medoff’s condemnation of President Roosevelt and Rabbi Wise’s tepid efforts to stem the tide of the Final Solution. Dalin notes the facts brought out by Medoff with regard to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unwillingness to budge in exploring rescue initiatives to save European Jewry, combined with his long record of antisemitic remarks, as well as Wise’s pusillanimous attitude vis-à-vis the “Boss.” Then, at the very end, he surprisingly writes that Medoff’s criticism of Wise is “too harsh” and that Wise could not have done more than he did, since “he found himself” as a supplicant, in the role of a court Jew. He further excuses Wise, writing, “Nor is it clear that American policy would have been significantly different” had Wise adopted a different approach. But Dalin seems to forget that only a few paragraphs earlier, he pointed out the effective results of the Bergson group’s activist approach, which led to the creation of the War Refugee Board. Does he realize that he has contradicted himself? Also, if, according to Dalin, Roosevelt was also hampered by “the constraints of his time and place,” how could “he clearly . . . have done more to save European Jewry”? I am left wondering about Dalin’s true estimation of Medoff’s powerful critique.
                                                                                                                                        Mordecai Paldiel
Stern College, Yeshiva University

David Dalin Responds:

I didn’t contradict myself. While I agree with much of Rafael Medoff’s justifiable criticism of Stephen S. Wise, I also think that he goes too far in his unrelenting critique of Wise. If Wise acted as a supplicant, as Medoff and I both agree that he did, it was because that was the position in which he found himself. While it is indisputable that Wise placed too much trust in the unsubstantiated good intentions of Franklin D. Roosevelt and made other errors of judgment, the political realities of those years foreclosed many of the options that Medoff thinks he should have taken. Nor did I imply or suggest, as Dr. Paldiel claims, that the Bergson group’s actions “led to the creation of the War Refugee Board.” I never mention the War Refugee Board in my review.


The Missing Poll

Benny Morris’s excellent review of Rashid Khalidi’s new book (“The War on History,” Spring 2020) has one error, though the fact in question supports his argument. Morris mentions “the absence of opinion polls” about Palestinian support of the Axis powers during World War II. There was such a poll, as reported in Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows. The poll was conducted by Sari Sakakini, who worked at the US consulate in Jerusalem in February 1941 and was the son of Khalil Sakakini, who is mentioned by Morris. The poll showed that 88 percent of Palestinian Arabs surveyed supported Germany and only 9 percent supported Britain.

L. King
via jewishreviewofbooks.com


Golden Books, Heroic Acts

While I share Allan Nadler’s concern about the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s recent firing of its librarians, I am troubled by the way his review of Dan Rabinowitz’s The Lost Library: The Legacy of Vilna’s Strashun Library in the Aftermath of the Holocaust appears to conflate the YIVO of today with the YIVO of 75 years ago (“Golden Books,” Spring 2020). Nor do I share his positive opinion of the book, whose author also seems to lack a nuanced understanding of the difference between 1946 and the present day.

Rabinowitz chronicles the postwar battle for custody of books from the Strashun Library of Vilna, which had been looted by the Nazis and shipped to Germany. They were recovered after the war and slated (along with other plundered Jewish cultural treasures) to be repatriated to their countries of origin. In the case of the Strashun Library, this would have meant return to Lithuania, by then already under Soviet rule. The author focuses—disapprovingly—on the deceptions employed by YIVO research director Max Weinreich and historian Lucy Schildkret (later, Dawidowicz) to obtain the remnants of the library for YIVO in New York. Rabinowitz displays little in the way of insight into and empathy for the context in which the events he chronicles occurred.

It’s a shame: Weinreich and Dawidowicz deserve a book that portrays them as rescuers of Jewish cultural treasures, who met the challenges of the historical moment in which they lived with courage and resourcefulness. Yes, lying and falsifying to get hold of cultural treasures would be considered scandalous behavior in 2020. But in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, it can only be regarded as heroic. Likewise, it is just as anachronistic and insulting to suggest a continuum (as Professor Nadler does in his review) between the decisions of YIVO officials in the 1940s, made in the shadow of the Holocaust, and the regrettable choice made in 2020 by YIVO’s current board and executive director to fire all its librarians.

Roberta Newman
Former YIVO Director of Digital Initiatives (2013–2019)

Allan Nadler Responds:

Roberta Newman is “troubled” by my “[conflation of] the YIVO of today with the YIVO of 75 years ago.” Worse, she finds my strongly positive review of Dan Rabinowitz’s meticulous and nuanced history of the Strashun Library to be “anachronistic and insulting” due to what she mistakenly reads as my suggestion of a “continuum” between events at YIVO in 1947 and 2020. She argues, with no small degree of indignation, that the leaders of YIVO who rescued the Strashun Library in 1947 should be treated as “heroic,” which is precisely the argument I make (employing the precise term I use) in my review, where I indeed go so far as to analogize their actions to the saving of human lives. It is hard to respond to what sounds like indignant criticism when it summarizes and reaffirms what I had argued even more passionately.

However, Ms. Newman’s serious accusations that I conflated the past with the present demand refutation. My review of Rabinowitz’s book required an introduction to the library of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which I provided beginning with current (and, as it happened, controversial) events and including the years during which I was negotiating on behalf of YIVO for the return of its alleged property. Reducing institutional history to conflating the present with the past misunderstands what historians do. Worse still is the accusation that my approach is anachronistic. As I made abundantly clear, a strong distinction must be drawn between the noble, heroic efforts of YIVO’s leaders in the post-Holocaust period to save Jewish books that survived the Holocaust and the completely unwarranted and pointless insistence on the part of YIVO today on perpetuating the necessary wartime lies of the 1940s.


History with and without the Accent

A. E. Smith writes in criticism of the Amazon drama Hunters (“The Best Revenge,” jewishreviewofbooks.com): “Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz are depicted speaking to each other in clear, measured Polish.” Neither my family nor any of the Polish Jews I know, either in Poland or in Israel or anywhere else, speak Polish with any kind of accent. Nor did my grandparents or their friends. Nor did my great-grandparents. They all spoke “clear, measured” Polish. An old family friend, still alive, who was in Auschwitz would be surprised to hear that he is supposed to speak Polish with an accent.

Agnieszka Kolakowska-Hirszowicz
Paris, France

A. E. Smith Responds:

I certainly did not mean to imply that Polish Jews in Auschwitz couldn’t speak Polish or that, if they did, it was only with an accent. I also recognize that the inmates of Auschwitz, and all the other camps, spoke virtually every European language and a few non-European ones as well. But at the beginning of the Second World War, Yiddish was still a living, everyday language, spoken by millions of people. What struck me about Hunters was that despite its explicit attempts to invoke Yiddishkeit, virtually no Yiddish was spoken in the show, especially during the Auschwitz sequences.

We cannot help but view any work of creative art through the lens of our own lives. My family had the immense good fortune to make it to Great Britain and North America long before the war began. Had they not, however, my mother and her parents and grandparents would have gone to their deaths at Auschwitz—or Sobibor or Belzec—crying out in Yiddish. And my father and his parents? It would have been Romani.


Posher for Kassover

In a letter to the editor in the Spring issue, Jack Levey discusses a poster for Blazing Saddles, in which “the beadwork on the Indian headdress spells out kosher l’Pesach.” It’s actually funnier than that: The pei and the kaf have been transposed so it says Posher LeKesach or something like that. Mistake? I think not.

Michael Milgrom
Beachwood, Ohio


Correction

In the photo on page 29 of the Spring 2020 issue, Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi is pictured with his second wife, not his first.

Comments

Suggested Reading

The Lowells and the Jews

Stuart Schoffman

Robert Lowell, the most famous poet in America, icon of the antiwar movement, consummate Boston Brahmin, was especially glad to speak with a Jewish group because, he drawled, “I’m an eighth, you know.” 

Postcards from the Shoah

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Stamps and the paper they traveled on create a historical record of the Holocaust, capturing, for instance, “the exact historical moment when one person reached out in desperation to another."