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The Holocaust in America: Yeshiva College during World War II

The Commentator is beginning a series on the response of Yeshiva College students to the crisis of European Jewry in the 1930s and, subsequently, to the Holocaust.   The first piece focuses on YU students' ignorance of the gravity of the Nazi threat and their assertion that America should not go to war against the Nazis.  Reprinted alongside this piece are two excerpts from The Commentator's coverage of events in Europe.  The first describes an anti-war demonstration attended by YU students; the second comes from a Purim edition parodying YC personnel by comparing them to Nazis.

As the Second World War raged in Europe, Americans largely remained ignorant of the extent of the Nazi regime's brutality. Newspapers around the country struggled to accurately report the ongoing events of the war. Misinformation was rampant, and conflicting stories regarding the Jews' treatment slowly trickled into America. We will examine how The Commentator covered the events leading up to the war and the war itself. Somewhat surprisingly, it appears that YC students initially remained opposed to American involvement in the War.

Modern American Jews might be surprised how Jewish students viewed a possible American entry into World War II. Far from rallying to save the Jews of Europe, the students at Yeshiva College were generally unabashed isolationists. Beginning already in the third issue of its existence, The Commentator published editorial after editorial decrying potential American involvement in the emerging conflict in Europe.

In commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the end of the First World War, The Commentator published an editorial urging college students to remain opposed to entering a new war, saying "the same mighty death struggle of imperialism dressed in modern phraseology is with us again"1 and calling college students who hold peace assemblies throughout the country, "enlightened." The editorial staff urged Yeshiva students not only to reject war as an option, but to actively protest any potential American involvement in the war. As late as 1939, an editorial asserted,

 

[It is] our firm belief that America will not readily become involved in another world war. We believe that anti-war feeling has run deep into the consciousness of our national life and that the events of the past few years have but served to strengthen our resolve never to become parties again to a new world war.2

 

It is evident that these isolationist editorials reflected the general consensus of Yeshiva College students as well as of college students around the country. The Commentator publicized anti-war demonstrations, including a November - 1935 gathering in the Student Synagogue, where 300 students "enthusiastically participated in the Nationwide Mobilization for Peace."3 Similarly, a 1936 editorial called for "a militant student front against war."4 This attitude was not unique to Yeshiva, as reported in a 1935 survey by the Associated Collegiate Press. According to the survey, "college students can be expected to oppose vigorously and actively any effort to drag the United States into the general European war…"5 One might have assumed that due to the peril faced by European Jewry, Yeshiva students would have been more willing to support American intervention. However, this clearly was not the case.

The students' apparent indifference to the plight of European Jewry appears to have stemmed from their inability to perceive the eventual genocide. It is not possible that the students would have willingly turned a blind eye to their brethren. Until at least 1939, it is evident that American Jewry did not suspect the danger that the Jews in Europe faced. We can also see this from the morbidly ironic usage of specific words in a pre-Holocaust world. They repeatedly use the words "holocaust" as a term for what would happen if America participated in another war.6 They call on readers to "protest against the insidious forces fomenting war and Fascism in this country."7 The disaster, to them, would not come from staying out of the war, but from going in.

However, the most striking example of their ignorance of the unfolding calamity in Europe is the light-hearted manner in which they repeatedly refer to the Nazis. The 1939 Purim edition of The Commentator has multiple quips about Nazis, ones that would certainly be considered offensive if published today.8 One headline read "Assimilators Expelled as Novel Non-Aryan Policy Takes Effect" and joked about a new "Non-Aryan policy" at Yeshiva. In jest, they refer to a "Propaganda Minister" at Yeshiva College. Another article refers to a Professor as the "uber-Fuherer" and talks about "Ratzis," apparently a contraction of Rabbi and Nazi. A news article in March 1940 mentions an incident where the Sophomore class woke up the Dormitory yelling "The Nazis are here," "run for cover," and "stop, please stop." 9

 

The Commentator

April 8, 1935

 

"The Peace Strike"

Unfortunately, the fact that no classes are scheduled in Yeshiva College the morning of April 12- the date dedicated to the nationwide student peace demonstration- renders it impossible for us to manifest a concrete, visible protest against the forces fomenting war and Fascism in this country.

We wish to take this opportunity of expressing editorially our direct and unmitigated condemnation of war…The student body of Yeshiva College places itself firmly and enthusiastically behind those organizations dedicated to the preservation of peace. The various student groups deserve the highest praise for their initiatives in organizing the peace demonstrations. Yeshiva College considers itself in the ranks of the marchers.

The Commentator, Purim Edition

March 1, 1939

 

"Assimilators Expelled As Novel Non-Aryan Policy Takes Effect"

In line with the revolutionary non-Aryan race theory advanced yesterday by Dr. Mordecai Gabriel head of the biology department of Yeshiva College…the institution announces that assimilators of the fifteenth generation are to be expelled from the school. The new theory emphasized the supremacy of pure-blooded non-Aryans of fine Oriental stock over the flaxenhaired Occidental "ghosts." All news in Yeshiva College is under strict censorship of Propaganda Minister Joseph. T. Ripley…

 

 

  1. "We Want Peace." Editorial. Commentator [New York] 9 Nov. 1938. Print
  2. "Our Stand Is." Editorial. Commentator [New York] 14 Apr. 1939. Print
  3. Feigon, Gershon J. "Students Hail United Front Opposing War." Commentator [New York] 21 Nov. 1935. Print.
  4. "Our Last Stand." Editorial. Commentator [New York] 11 Nov. 1936. Print
  5. Survey by the Associated College Press as reported by The Commentator in October 1935
  6. See, for example, "The Peace Strike." and "We Want Peace."
  7. "The Peace Strike." Editorial. Commentator [New York] 5 Apr. 1935. Print.
  8. Commentator [New York] 1 Mar. 1939. Print.
  9. "Sophs Dust of Siddurim and Rabbenu Tam Tephillin, Then Take Over Minyan." Commentator [New York] 13 Mar. 1940. Print.