Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Delayed Reaction to the Holocaust

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Rafael Medoff’s article in the Jewish Tribune of April 24, on the impact of Robert Morse’s 1968 book, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, was a timely reminder of the indifference displayed even by the United States towards Jews trapped in Hitler’s Europe during World War II.

As we well know, the same held true for Canada, as documented by Irving Abella and Harold Troper in their 1982 book None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948.

It took a long time even for Jews to come to terms with the enormity of the crime against our people. As Franklin Bialystok has recounted in his book Delayed Impact: The Holocaust and the Canadian Jewish Community, published in 2000, few in Canada spoke about the genocide at first.

Indeed, before the 1967 Six-Day War, Holocaust memorial commemorations were confined mostly to survivors themselves.

I recall running across, by mere chance, Raul Hilberg’s massive study The Destruction of the European Jews, in the McGill University library stacks, in 1966. It had been published, after much difficulty, in 1961, by a minor American press, after many others had rejected it. I had never even heard of the book. In those days, McGill did not offer a single course in Jewish Studies.

Amazing as it may seem to us today, the two major Jewish advocacy organizations working as one in the Jewish Community Relations Committee – B’nai Brith Canada and the Canadian Jewish Congress – displayed little interest immediately after the war.

Following the end of hostilities, once the scale of the Holocaust had become apparent, a National Jewish Black Book Committee had been formed. It was a joint venture of the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists in the U.S.; the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union; the Vaad Leumi, the Jewish National Council of Palestine; and the World Jewish Congress.

The committee gathered a stellar group of sponsors: Albert Einstein was honorary chairman, the journalist B. Z. Goldberg the chairman, and novelist Sholem Asch the president.

Also involved were academics, artists and writers like Eddie Cantor, Morris Carnovsky, Marc Chagall, Thomas Mann, Dr. Raphael Mahler, Yehudi Menuhin, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and Maurice Schwartz; and Jewish public servants and Zionist leaders such as Nahum Goldmann and Rabbi Stephen Wise.

The committee in 1946 published, in New York, The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against the Jewish People, one of the earliest works documenting the enormity of the Nazi genocide. Yet the book went almost unnoticed in Canada.

Valia Hirsch, the executive secretary of the committee, voiced her concerns that no meetings had been held in the Jewish communities of Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, or Hamilton, to bring it to the attention to the Jewish community.

The Canadian Jewish Congress had ordered 100 copies of the book in the summer of 1946, but had never bothered, according to Hirsch, to obtain them from Canada Customs. The CJC indicated a year later that they were no longer interested and “cannot use them.”

Some Canadian Jews even remarked that enough had already been written.

Nathan Cohen, who would go on to become a major literary critic and television personality in Canada, in May of 1946 suggested that while the “incalculable cruelty” of the Nazi mass murders should be fully treated, “it is equally important that we should stress the rehabilitation of European Jewry” and the “healthy and constructive life of Jews in other countries.”

The CJC’s reticence was probably politically motivated. The problem for them, as the Cold War intensified, was that pro-Soviet Jews were the main force behind this book. After all, most of the Holocaust had taken place in what had become the east European “people’s republics” or the Soviet Union itself, so they had access to the sources and could make use of them for pro-Soviet ends.

Thankfully, things are different now. No longer are Jews divided by ideology when it comes to memorializing the six million who were murdered.

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