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Holocaust Silence in Yeshiva University

For the past 76 years, The Commentator has provided us with a unique perspective both on issues within Yeshiva College and throughout the world. By perusing articles from the past, the History section aims to shed light on matters that were relevant years ago, but can still be pertinent in modern times. Today, we present an article on how contemporary Yeshiva students reacted to the Holocaust.

The first portion of this article was printed last semester (YU Commentator 75.9) and discussed how before the war, the students at Yeshiva College were unabashed isolationists. Students rallied against American intervention in the events unfolding in Europe. The Commentator even called for a “militant student front against war.” Shockingly, the 1939 Purim edition of the paper contained multiple Nazi jokes, ones that would certainly be offensive if published today. However, it must be pointed out that these events occurred before the students knew of the atrocities taking place against European Jewry. We will now examine how students reacted after America was pulled into the war by the attack on Pearl Harbor. One might think that as the Nazi’s agenda became clear, the Yeshiva students would have rallied against the Germans, in support of their European brethren However, as we will see, that barely occurred.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor completely altered the American attitude towards involvement in the Second World War. Following the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt famously called December 7, “a date which will live in infamy” and Congress declared war on Japan. The declaration of war was supported by both parties and was approved almost unanimously in both houses of Congress. This position was also reflected by the newly awakened American support for war. The American isolationism of the 1930s had transformed into national widespread interventionism, something that can be seen in the issues of The Commentator following the attack.

Immediately following the declaration of war, The Commentator’s isolationist leanings disappeared. In a December 1941 editorial, they obviously support the impending war effort, saying America “represents not just a free segment of the world, but all mankind which fights for freedom.” We must emphasize that in none of the editorials, in the months immediately following Pearl Harbor, was there any mention of the Jews in Europe. Knowing this, it is apparent that the switch in Yeshiva students to interventionism had nothing to do with a sudden drive to save European Jewry. In reality, they were not different than the typical American. Yeshiva was a microcosm of the nation. Ordinary Americans and Yeshiva students supported the war for the same reason; Japan attacked America thus necessitating a response.

By the middle of 1942, the first reports on the devastation of the Jews of Europe arrived. The Reigner Telegram was a message sent by a representative of the World Jewish Congress that informed the Allies about the Nazi’s Final Solution. Similar accounts began to arrive from people who had escaped from the concentration camps. In response to these reports, the Allies publically attacked “this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination.” According to Professor Jeffery Gurock, “It was known that Jews suffered terribly under Hitler’s rule, but news of the Holocaust would not become public until November 1942.

The Commentator published a first-person account by a Yeshiva College student who witnessed the pillage of Warsaw. The student recounted witnessing the destruction of the Jewish community. It is interesting to note that this was not a front-page story in The Commentator. It actually was printed on the final page of news coverage in that issue. As we will see, this begins a trend (with some exceptions) that even as what was transpiring in Europe became clearer, it was not widely reported in the national media nor in The Commentator.

In 1943, the first articles and editorials appeared that directly discussed the persecution of European Jewry. From that point and onward, the context in which the Holocaust is mentioned is mostly connected to the increasing demand for an autonomous Jewish state. This increase in Zionism was not unique to Yeshiva students. American Jews began to recognize the value that a Jewish state would have. Even if a Jewish State in Palestine would not have saved all of European Jewry, it is likely that many of them could have escaped the Nazi’s persecution by fleeing to Israel. In February of that year, Rabbi Mayer Berlin, the president of Mizrahi addressed a “huge gathering” and appealed to American Jewry to “throw off its cloak of smugness and indifference…the world is paying for its indifference to Jewish persecution.” However, we must mention that at this point there had been no editorial in The Commentator that directly condemned the Nazi atrocities.

The March 4, 1943 edition of The Commentator, initially appears to signify a major change in its lack of direct coverage of the Holocaust. A special edition of the paper was published, with all articles directly relating to the potential annihilation of the Jews of Europe. One editorial discusses that the world has been silent for the previous ten years but “this publication is our initial attempt…to let our brothers know that we are not forgetting them in this, their darkest hour” By acknowledging that this was their first attempt, we see that even they recognized that until this point The Commentator did not devote significant coverage to the Holocaust. Another article headlined “European Jewry Faces Total Extinction- Nazi Pattern of Death Threatens 5,000,000 Jews,” relays what was happening to the Jews, stating,

It is difficult for American Jews living in warmth and comfort to visualize the misery of those clinging to life in the filth, starvation, and disease-ridden inferno of Nazi dominated Europe.

The Commentator acknowledges how foreign the concept of death camps was to American college students. We will later discuss this further as a potential reason for the seeming indifference of both The Commentator and the mainstream American media.

The special edition of The Commentator ends with an editorial blaming Yeshiva students for their apathy to the “unparalleled plight of their people.” The detachment is understandable given the lack of coverage by The Commentator itself. However, the editor then goes on to say, “Has any of them [students] reacted even in a mild way to The Commentator’s editorials on the Jewish situation?” It is unclear to what editorials this is referring. As we have seen, they themselves recognized that this edition of The Commentator is their initial attempt to acknowledge the situation. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems slightly unfair of The Commentator to condemn Yeshiva students for not caring, while at the same time publishing only a few editorials relating to the Holocaust. The editorial ends by calling for the “genesis of a new attitude on the part of the students.” Despite this call for action, we will see that very few changes occurred in The Commentator and in Yeshiva following this special issue.

For the remainder of 1943, there is no indication that there was any sort of shift in attitude or concern at Yeshiva College. The final editorial of the Spring 1943 semester, once again bemoans the apathy of the students. The editorial states:

We fear that the Yeshiva student is developing a sort of isolationism, shutting himself away from stark reality. We view with alarm the apathy displayed by many students towards questions, which vitally affect them and their people. That such an attitude is prevalent among many of our people is a sad fact; for it to manifest itself among Yeshiva students is criminal.

Again, the students’ seeming lack of distress for the Jews in Europe is demonstrated. This may be shocking to the modern American, who might assume that Yeshiva College students would have lobbied for American intervention. However, we have seen that both before America entered World War II, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the focus of the students was not on European Jewry.

The trend of apparent indifference of the student body continued until the end of the war. The few editorials that appear in The Commentator regarding the Holocaust upheld the trend of calling on Yeshiva students to take a strong stance. The editorial staff even went so far as to headline a February 1944 editorial, “Students’ Lethargy in Jewish Affairs [are] Criminal.” It is clear that, at this juncture, it was the opinion of the Commentator staff that the Yeshiva students were almost indifferent to the reports coming out of Europe. This, coupled with only occasional editorials in The Commentator, indicates that the plight of European Jewry was not at the forefront of Yeshiva College students’ minds.

We can suggest multiple possibilities why Yeshiva College students during the late 1930s and early 1940s were somewhat apathetic towards the fate of European Jewry. One potential reason is that they simply did not know the magnitude of what was going on in Europe. However, although it appears that this was the case before 1941, it does not explain why the editors of The Commentator repeatedly wrote about the indifference of the students even late into the War.

Another, and somewhat difficult, suggestion is that Yeshiva students did not care about the situation and willingly ignored European Jewry. As troubling as this may sound, for some people this might have been the case. In The Abandonment of the Jews, David Wyman argues that this was an accurate portrayal. He believes that if American Jews would have committed themselves to fighting for European Jewry, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. Wyman criticizes both the American Jewish and non-Jewish leadership for not speaking out against the Holocaust, even as what was happening first became transparent. It is disheartening to suggest that this was the case for Yeshiva students. It must, however, be acknowledged that such a reason is a distinct possibility for their inaction.

We must also recognize that the events of the Holocaust were taking place very far away from Yeshiva College. The students were college students focused on work, campus events, and routine college life. For them to appreciate the magnitude of the situation would have been extremely difficult, given the physical distance and psychological disconnection. It is likely that this played a role in Yeshiva students’ apathy during the Holocaust. They were able to mobilize and support the Zionist cause because the creation of a Jewish state would have many implications for Jews around the world. The suffering of Jews in Europe would have been more difficult to grasp, as it did not really affect their daily lives.

It appears to me that the most likely reason why Yeshiva College students, for the most part, did not actively protest during the Holocaust is because the event was beyond anything they could imagine. In At the Mind’s Limit, author Jean Amery, a Holocaust survivor, discusses why the Holocaust goes against the very definition of humanity. He believed that it was impossible to rationalize what went on at Auschwitz and the other death camps. Accordingly, Amery considers it impossible to discuss intellectual reasons for the Holocaust.

Perhaps a similar line of thought can explain the dearth of Holocaust coverage in The Commentator after 1942. For Jewish-American students, the entire concept of mass murder and concentration camps was utterly irrational. Even as they heard the harrowing reports, even when The Commentator finally called on them to cry out for the Jews of Europe, they were apathetic. Like most Americans, Yeshiva students remained silent.