“Upon Seeing The Destruction of My People”: The Commentator on March 4, 1943.
This summer we organized the past 78 years of The Commentator for the library’s archive. Touring through the uneventful 80s, the tumultuous 70s, and the rebellious 60s, we read the history of the university and, ultimately, of Modern Orthodoxy.
Throughout the years, the same themes recurred: cyclical columns decried the inflated prices of the cafeteria, announced the latest student government initiative, and invariably question if Torah u’Madda, Jewish and secular studies, could coexist. Every year the answer—well, it’s complicated.
But the year 1943 was different. A hand, sinking amid swirls of turbulent waters, covers the entire front page of this issue. Under the image, a translated quotation from Psalms, “Out of the Depths Have I Cried Unto Thee, O Lord.” A Hebrew verse from Isaiah flanks the masthead, “Palgei Mayim Tered Eini Al Shever Bat Ami,” ‘A stream of water runs from my eyes upon seeing the destruction of my people.’
What follows are five pages of haunting headlines and detailed articles. “European Jewry Faces Total Extinction,” and “Nazi Pattern of Death Threatens 5,000,000 Jews” spread across page three. “Although Hitler never concealed his implacable hatred of the Jews,” an editorial conceded, “human minds simply refuse to believe that he meant every threat literally.”
On March 4th of 1943, The Commentator published a six-page special issue when tales from the old world could no longer be ignored, when speculations turned into newspaper reports, when the rumors could no longer be dismissed as beyond the realm of possibility. We trembled when we held the issue.
Articles recounted the complete destruction of synagogues and seminaries across Europe. Another estimated that Gestapo execution squads and poison gas had killed two million Jews. Pierre Van Paasoon, the newspaper’s managing editor, wondered in bewilderment, “Did Dante in his awful vision see anything as gruesome in hell?” In 1943, the students of Yeshiva College finally grasped that a holocaust was raging across Europe.
Reading through the 1930s, we discovered that students at Yeshiva College were more invested in American isolationism than in the plight of European Jewry. Throughout the 1930s, students and administrators at Yeshiva College avidly protested any talk of war. “Peace Forums” and resolutions advocating nonaggression were signed through 1941. “We believe that anti-war feeling has run deep into the consciousness of our national life,” a 1939 editorial avowed, “and that the events of the past few year have but served to strengthen our resolve never to become parties again to a new world war.” I realized that students, like most of American Jewry, refused to believe the news.
Not one editorial decried the Nuremberg Laws and only one editorial— relegated to the back pages of a 1936 issue—mentioned the banning of Jewish track-runner Gretel Bergman from the Olympic games. Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” of November 9, 1938, was featured on the front pages of The New York Times, but went unreported in The Commentator until a month after the event. After the Blitzkrieg, an article alerted students of a possible disaster for Polish Jews who now fell “under the yoke of the Nazi Regime,” but it would take four years for The Commentator, and by extension, the students and professors of Yeshiva College, to assume the very worst.
What took so long?
To read this issue is to enter the minds of Jews who could not fathom Shever Bat Ami, the destruction of our people. They could not believe that a holocaust was possible, even as the evidence accumulated. “I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it,” a young Elie Wiesel tells his father in Night. If students at Yeshiva College suffered this same crisis of humanity, this issue catalogues the first unraveling of this faith.
The anecdotes trickling in from Europe—of ghettos and freight cars—failed to destroy an understandable naiveté among American Jews. Who could believe that the heinous bulletins were true? Who would not cling to the prospect that while Nazi anti-Semitism was notorious, stories were embellished, numbers were inflated, and rumors were but bubbe-meises, fables spun from the horrors of Jewish history? For the vast majority of Yeshiva College students, the magnitude of the Final Solution lay beyond the scope of possibility.
The headline editorial of the issue claimed that the world had remained silent, but that this special issue represented the “initial attempt” to bring horrors to light. A short editorial purported that “Yeshiva Student Are Not Blameless,” and indicted both the student body and past years of The Commentator, “on the appearance of a seemingly frightful indifference to the unparalleled plight of their people.” Student newspapers frequently accuse student bodies of apathy, but this censure was different. The front pages of The Commentator were filled with advocacy for peace but failed to consider the “plight of our people.” Students and school administrators organized rallies protesting war, not protesting Nazi violence.
Perhaps, though, The Commentator’s reticence and delayed response stemmed not from the shock to the conscience, but from a slow inurement to brief encounters with the truth. A decade of hearing trickling reports grow ever more horrifying left American Jewry numb. Like the boiling frog effect—the inability to notice significant changes that occur gradually—American Jewish communities may have remained insufficiently attentive to the plight of European Jews because they steadily acclimated to the news.
Rumors of Nazi barbarism had been circulating for a decade and may have been dismissed as hyperbole but, by the time its existence was confirmed, the sheer magnitude of horror had been diluted. By 1943, American Jews were also too late. Their pleas, resolutions, and petitions were powerless against the German killing machine.
Both readings of the special issue of The Commentator are plausible. Students may have dismissed the news as unthinkably improbable or could have built immunity to truly internalizing the destruction by years of hearing tales from European refugees.
It seems baffling that The Commentator was almost entirely devoid of any discussion of the tragedies befalling their brethren across the ocean. But we grew up with the Holocaust. We have lived with the specter of genocide our whole lives. To us, the Holocaust exists as a reality. To them, the holocaust was not even a possibility. On March 4th, the Holocaust became their reality, too.
This year, to mark the 75 anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Commentator reprinted the March 4, 1943 special issue. To accommodate the limits of our printer, we were unable to publish the issue in its entirety. Because the microfilm and facsimiles were difficult to decipher, we retyped the articles and reconstructed the masthead.