Growing up in Leechburg, 30 miles or so north of Pittsburgh, Ruth Reidbord watched her mother struggle unsuccessfully to save family trapped in Poland during World War II.
Reidbord, who was 14 when the war ended, witnessed the creation of Israel and remembers seeing postings in Jewish newspapers as people searched for missing family.
“But there wasn’t anything about the Holocaust,” she said. “No one was talking about it.”
Many postwar Jews have similar memories about the decade after the Holocaust: that the rawness of the wounds kept people from talking about it or memorializing it.
In this narrative, it took the tumult of the 1960s — including the broadcast of the Eichmann Trial and the Israeli victory in the Six Day War — to make the discussion public, starting the process of grand memorializing and teaching so prevalent today.
But is it true?
“Was there silence, or was that a myth?” Susan Melnick of the Rauh Jewish Archives asked a crowd gathered at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill before a satellite broadcast from the 92nd Street Y in New York. The topic, “American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust,” was part of a series presented with the Jewish Community Center, J’Burgh, Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh and Community Day School.
The broadcast centered around “We Remember with Reverence and Love” a new book by New York University professor Hasia Diner, who spent seven years combing through Jewish archives to prove that American Jews didn’t keep quiet about the Holocaust.
Diner said she consciously tried to keep the book from focusing just on memorials in New York, traveling around the country to gather examples from Boston, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Chicago, her hometown of Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.
The book references a 1958 commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto at the Pittsburgh Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association featuring “Newcomer” Abe Salem, one of many candle-lighting rituals across the country featuring survivors in key roles.
Diner’s book also mentions “Laughter Through Tears,” a March 1950 article in The Jewish Criterion by Solomon Wieder, who immigrated to McKeesport from Czechoslovakia. “In May of 1944, the day of liberation,” Wieder wrote, “the brutal Nazis burned alive my only sister and my two younger brothers.”
Before the broadcast from New York, Melnick and Martha Berg, the archivist at Rodef Shalom Congregation, offered a local perspective on these sorts of examples.
Berg showcased similar finds outside of the newspaper world, including significant allocations of the United Jewish Fund — now part of the United Jewish Federation — to helping new immigrants both here and abroad in the years after the war, and explicitly references in the sermons and writings of Rabbi Solomon Freehof to the murder of Jews.
The silences of the past are hard to measure and harder to prove. How far must a historian delve into the millions of pages in the public record before rightfully concluding that American Jews didn’t speak out about the Holocaust in the years after it occurred?
Searching through the Pittsburgh Jewish newspapers, Melnick found an immediate response to the Holocaust in Pittsburgh Jewry between 1944 and 1945, but said that response was “not as evident” from 1946 to 1950. Annual memorial services at the Jewish Home for the Aged did not mention the 6 million victims of the Holocaust. Public memorials tended to focus on the war at large or the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“The historical record is not clear-cut. There never is a simple yes or no,” Melnick said.
If public silence is hard to measure, then private silence — what individual survivors did and did not tell family — is virtually impossible to ascertain more than 50 years later.
Perhaps that explains why so many people remember silence despite a record of speech.
Even after a presentation suggesting Pittsburgh did not remain silent in the decade after World War II, several people in the room rationalized the silence they remembered.
Dan Resnick, a Carnegie Mellon University historian with expertise on Europe, said Jews needed time after the war to tackle the horrors of the Holocaust.
“We were concerned with the struggle for life. It was not yet time for public commemoration,” he said.
A woman who described herself as the wife of a Holocaust survivor said American Jews couldn’t be expected to immediately understand and memorialize the extent of the Holocaust because it took time for the extent of the Holocaust to become fully known. Camps became liberated at different times; even survivors didn’t realize the scale of death.
Diner argued that the grassroots memorializing of the 1950s only looks like silence compared to the well-organized and funded memorials so common since the 1980s.
James E. Young, a professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, noted in the broadcast that at least 20 American Jewish communities claim to have built the first public Holocaust memorial in the United States.
In the first decade after the war, the world didn’t even have an agreed upon term to describe what the Nazis did to the Jews; minutes, sermons, speeches and articles refer alternately to the Shoa, the Six Million, the Korbon (atonement sacrifice) and the Catastrophe.
In the 1960s, a younger generation of Jews — rebelling against 1950s values — saw those previous efforts as silence.
“They, the new Jews, had ‘discovered’ the Holocaust on their own and were going to make up for the silence of their parents,” Diner said.
Diner argues that silence was more perceived than real, and said the perception may have had more to do with ears that weren’t listening than with mouths that weren’t speaking.
While researching in Milwaukee, Diner found notices from the 1950s about efforts to fund a memorial plaque to Holocaust victims, including a photograph of the plaque on the wall of a teen room where Diner spent afternoons playing pingpong in her youth.
“I was probably in that room a thousand times and I never remember seeing that. … It was so deeply woven into the fabric of life that it didn’t stand out on its own terms,” she said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1006.)