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Varian Fry

The American Experience
of the Holocaust

Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) 1993 and 1996 addresses

by Pierre Sauvage

On this Yom Hashoah in 1993, I'd like to begin by remembering a death that occurred almost exactly fifty years ago, on May 12, 1943, and that I would like to honor tonight, even though it was a suicide.  It was the suicide of a Polish Jew while the Holocaust raged, but it occurred in the safety of London.  It was explained, very clearly, by a suicide note, which readers of the New York Times, among other publications, were able to read and ponder with their morning coffee, before they went on with the busy lives we all lead, then as now.

"I cannot be silent," Shmuel Zygelboim wrote,"—I cannot live—while remnants of the Jewish people of Poland, of whom I am a representative, are perishing.  By my death I wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of my people.  I know how little human life is worth today; but, as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall contribute to breaking down that indifference of those who may now—at the last moment—rescue the few Polish Jews still alive from certain annihilation."

May 12, 1943—about two years before the end of the war and the end of the Holocaust.

On this Yom Hashoah in 1993, I stand before you as a 49 year-old European-born Jew—as it happens, the age of Shmuel Zygelboim when he took the life that he no longer considered his—and as I recall ritualistically somewhere, every year, on Yom Hashoah, using the same words—but getting older, of course, with each passing year—that means that around the time of my birth much of my family was humiliated, tortured and murdered—while the world watched.

Yes, I had a singularly lucky birth, since I was born and protected, along with my parents, in a singular haven of refuge: the area of Le Chambon in the mountains of southcentral France.  Yes, in the area of Le Chambon, in the mountains of France, there, in that community, the peasants and villagers turned no one away, betrayed no one, attempted to convert one.  There was something to be done, and they just did it.  No big deal.  It was who they were.

However challenging some of what I have to say may be to the Christians who are joining with us tonight in our effort to remember, let me assure them that it comes from a Jew who will never forget that he survived the worst of what Christians allowed to happen because of the best of which Christians were—and are—capable.  And however challenging some of what I have to say tonight may be for us, as American Jews, please remember that I a Jew who has not come by his Jewishness casually, and who, I assure you, does not take the responsibility lightly.

For what I didn't say in "Weapons of the Spirit" (it did come up in the interview with Bill Moyers that followed the P.B.S. broadcasts) is that I was not raised on stories about Le Chambon or stories about the Holocaust.  I was raised, in New York, where my parents moved from France when I was 4, under the shadow of a huge secret.  They only revealed the secret when I was 18 and about to return to France to study.  That secret, which I had never guessed, was that they were Jewish, and that I was Jewish, a fact that even when it was finally conveyed was not supposed to have any important meaning to me, and indeed for many years did not.

Mind you, I had not been raised as a Christian.  I had been raised as a "nothing."  And my strong identification with the period of the Holocaust, the sense that it shaped me, the belief that it has shaped the world we live in far more than we realize, was, in fact, the product of an act of rebellion, an ongoing effort on my part to achieve a sense of identity despite my parents' wish that I junk the past and build my life solely on the mutilated identity that they had chosen to pass on to me.

And perhaps being raised under the shadow of a taboo has made me especially sensitive to the presence of taboos, secrets, lies, skeletons in closets—and more eager than most, perhaps, to identify them and reduce their power.

Yes, what about us here during that time?  Did we know nothing?  Could we do nothing?  Were we here in the U. S. essentially "nothings" when it comes to that experience?  Or are we being handed down only part of our past, part of our experience?  Are we living on lies?

These questions and some answers have to be part of any education about the Holocaust or that education will not go very far.  Values cannot be taught if the teacher considers that he or she is not accountable as well.  Moral distinctions are most effectively made about others when there is willingness to face one's own responsibilties.

And the Holocaust was our responsibility too.

I am proud to be a part of this service tonight, but as we continue to develop the liturgy for Yom Hashoah, I hope that we will draw on Yom Kippur more than on Tisha B'Av, that we will make it a time for introspection and repentance, rather than lamentation.  We must face our human capacity for indifference, just as we must learn from the few who cared.  Once again, we Jews must set the example, if we are to remain Jewish, if we are to remain human.

I'm sure many of you know the response that Elie Wiesel once gave when pressed as to what was the most important thing the world had learned from the Holocaust.  His answer: that you can get away with it.  If that is so, then must we not ask how we let them get away it with it?

How much easy comfort we take here in the fact that the Holocaust didn't happen here, that the murders, to be sure, were plotted and committed elsewhere.

But it wasn't just "them" and "there."  I said that the Holocaust didn't happen here, because that appears to be a truism.  But in fact, it is not actually what I believe.  I believe that the Holocaust happened here too.  I believe that the Holocaust occurred wherever people allowed it to occur.  I believe that all human tragedies occur wherever people allow them to occur.

How eager we are to pass off American participation in World War II and our victory as somehow related to the war on the Jews.  But of course the war was not fought to save the Jews and of course it largely failed to do so.

We Jews speak with understandable emotion of the liberators of the death camps, and self-serving, hypocritical exploitation of their shattering experience will no doubt increase to an outrageous degree as we approach the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust.  But these were liberators who were led by men who did not even tell them what they would find when a camp happened to be along their route, routes that were not adjusted one millimeter in order to hasten their liberation by one second.

And, of course, we declined even to disrupt the operations of the death factory of Auschwitz, when it was fully within our power to do so.

Although the argument was that the best thing we could do for the Jews of Europe was to win the war, there was a war on the Jews concurrently being fought and won by the Nazis and on that battlefield we did almost nothing.

America fought the military war against the Nazis, but it did not fight the spiritual war against the Nazis.  We won one.  We lost the other.  And our self-image as human beings is perhaps forever tainted by that defeat.

Certainly, that will be the case until we face up to it and start learning from it, the righteous of that time, of course—righteous Christians and righteous Jews—being the best teachers of all.

Nor, of course, was it just a matter of the government or of leadership.  The war effort and the flag-waving patriotic hoopla in the media of the time have obscured to this day the powerful, dark forces that continued to permeate American life for much of the war years.

One of my movie projects is about an American pro-Fascist plot to seize the White House, a plot that actually took place and was infiltrated and derailed by the F.B.I. in 1939.  At the heart of the conspiracy was a so-called Christian Front unit in Brooklyn, a group affiliated with Father Coughlin, the hugely popular and hugely ambitious antisemitic radio priest.  A young Irish Catholic, shocked by what some of his friends were doing and planning, agreed to pretend to go along with them and report back to the F.B.I.

My point is that even after Pearl Harbor, let alone before it, this was not at all a country united in a common cause, contrary to what we are constantly being told.  Do you know that in the late '30s, the Nazi military attaché in Washington encouraged American fascists—and there were many tin-horn, street-corner aspiring Hitlers around—with the considered opinion that there was ten times more anti-Jewish feeling in the U.S. at that time than there had been in Germany before Hitler's rise to power.

Historian David Wyman, who has studied all this so brilliantly in his crucial book, "The Abandonment of the Jews," estimates that at least one third of the U.S. Congress at the time was antisemitic.  According to a Roper poll conducted in July 1939 and not released at the time, over half of all Americans—53%, according to this poll—believed that Jews were different and should be restricted.  Ten percent of the public openly declared to the pollster that they favored expelling Jews from the U.S.  (The question wasn't asked what should be done with these Jews if there was no place to expel them to.)  And according to all of the public opinion polls, antisemitic sentiment continued to rise throughout the war years, and regardless of the news from Europe and the obvious plight of the Jews there.

Can you believe that by June 1944, according to one such poll which I still find almost impossible to believe, Americans viewed Jews as a larger threat to the U.S. than the Nazis or the Japanese?  Is it any wonder then that the doors to the U.S. remained so firmly shut to refugees?

Is it any wonder that American Jews were scared—very scared.  And, of course, you can be scared without even admitting it to yourself.  Indeed, those fears we don't admit are the most relentlessly crippling of all.

And what about the Americans who cared then?  Oh, they existed.  Just as the people of Le Chambon existed, although, of course, we've had difficulty noticing.

I have plans for a conference on private American relief work in Europe during World War II.  How little we know about that, and about those remarkable Americans, some of whom I am proud to call my friends.  Tracy Strong, Jr., for instance, was a Y.M.C.A. representative in Europe from 1940-42.  He visited the internment camps in France, and helped set up homes in Le Chambon.  He has never been interviewed by a single scholar.

How little we know—that will change soon—but how little we know as yet about a man named Varian Fry.  Varian Fry died alone and forgotten in 1967.  Yet while the situations were very different, Varian Fry was the closest we came to having an American Raoul Wallenberg.

The first temporary exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum [was] an exhibit on Varian Fry [1991] and the people who worked with him to rescue artists and intellectuals and political leaders in Marseille in southern France in 1940 and 1941, an exhibit which the Chambon Foundation helped to make possible.

By the time Fry was arrested by the Vichy authorities and kicked out of France with the complicity of the U.S. Government—that had never looked upon him as anything other than a trouble-maker—Fry and his tiny, dedicated Emergency Rescue Committee—despite the official-sounding name this was very much a small, independent operation—had saved some 1,200 people, Fry personally helping to smuggle several of them over borders to freedom.  By the time the entire Marseille operation was disbanded less than a year after Fry's departure, some 2,000 people had been helped.

Among them were many of the artistic and intellectual luminaries of our age: artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, poet André Breton, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel and Lion Feuchtwanger, philosopher Hannah Arendt...  The list goes on and on, many of the names on it obscure to us today, but this was the intelligentsia of Europe at the time.

 That was before the implementation of the Final Solution.  What did we know of that later in the U.S.?

It was in November 1942 that the State Department finally stopped sitting on and trying to bury the news from Europe, and officially confirmed it to Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader of the time.  On the evening of Tuesday, November 24th, Wise held a press conference in Washington.  There were news stories the next day in many newspapers.  A few of them played the story on the front page.

This is how Edward R. Murrow, one of the most respected voices of that time, put it in his radio broadcast a few weeks later.  This is what millions of his listeners heard, and I quote.  "What is happening is this: millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered.  The phrase 'concentration camp' is obsolete.  It is now possible to speak of extermination camps."

Then what happened?  Virtually nothing.

For a crucial period of 14 months, while the murder rate escalated and the reports became more and more numerous and compelling—and my grandmother was murdered and my uncles were murdered and my aunt was murdered and my cousin was murdered (and I was among the luckiest)—the government did nothing, going out of its way to pretend, falsely, it was doing something.

The American churches, by and large, said nothing.  American political leaders, by and large, said nothing.  The American people said and did little, and among them American Jews, yes, said and did much too little.

A few years before, in late 1940, a New York City wallpaper hanger who also happened to be a prominent Yiddish poet, had felt the need to articulate some troubling thoughts and emotions.

"Today the first snow descended.

Children are gliding on sleds in the park,

The air is filled with the clamor of joy.

Like the children, I love the white snow,

And I have a special love for the month of December.  (...)

O dear God, God of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob,

Scold me not for this love of mine

Scold me for something else


Scold me for not really wearing

The six-towered Star-of-David

And the infinite circle of the yellow patch

To hearten the sons of Israel in Hangman's-Land


The question gnaws like a gnat in my brain,

The question eats at my heart like a worm.

Again, this was in 1940, before the large-scale murder began, before the reports on the torture and murder started dribbling back, tentative at first, but soon inescapable and convergent and clear except to those who did not want to hear, but the question of H. Leivick's identification with the Jews in Naziland was already gnawing at his brain and eating at his heart.  What was left of that brain and that heart, I wonder, by the time it was over?

And when it was over, and we knew everything—or everything we cared to know, which was not very much—we continued to act as if we hadn't known anything and we couldn't have done anything anyway.

Not one major Jewish organization, having failed the largest challenge in modern Jewish history, closed its doors, engaged in any soul-searching, or even had a change in leardership.  With few exceptions, American Jews banded together among themselves and with non-Jews on a near universal party line that the Holocaust was just them them and there.

I have a book, published in 1946, called Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Tribute of the Synagogue.  It is a compendium of tributes by rabbis to the late president.  That Roosevelt was beloved among Jews is well known, and he was good for the Jews—at least for American Jews.  At Passover, my brother-in-law recalled coming home one day to find his mother crying; that is how he learned that President Roosevelt had died.

I don't challenge the notion that Roosevelt was a great president in many important respects, not least of which was bringing a reluctant United States into the war.  But with the stench of Auschwitz still in the air, these rabbis make few references to the fact that two thirds of the Jews of Europe have just been wiped out, a rich, vibrant culture that had thrived for centuries obliterated.

Instead, again and again, vieing in their devotion to their late President, our rabbis celebrated Roosevelt as Moses—Moses who led the Jews, his people, into freedom, whereas this Moses presided over the greatest tragedy in Jewish history.  "Like the children of Israel," wrote one rabbi, "we are standing at the Red Sea.  And God said to Moses, 'Why do the children of Israel cry unto me—tell the children of Israel to go forward!"  Moses!

Even after the event, when there was no longer any need to be scared or to grovel, this rabbi was comfortable deluding himself for an instant that the Children of Israel had survived Pharaoh once again, when in fact this time Pharaoh had successfully divided the Jews, and this time God had sent no Moses, Jewish or non-Jewish, to avert the tragedy.  And I wonder whether there were any protests or even nitpicking disagreements about emphasis expressed anywhere in these rabbis' congregations or in the Jewish press.

"Still, we didn't know," some of you are ready to insist.  "How could we have known?  How could we have imagined the unimaginable?

Even if we did hear or read rumors and press reports, even if we believed them, what could we have done about it?   The situation of American Jews today is vastly different from what it was then.  The attitude of the American people towards Jews is vastly different from what it was then.  You weren't there.  You don't know what it was like.  It is always easy to judge after the fact."

And if you are thinking some of these things, please believe that I know that there is some truth in them, and I hope I have succeeded in conveyed that I believe that.

But isn't it time to let in more of that other truth too, a truth reflected for instance in a statement by a Protestant theologian named Visser't Hooft, a good man who tried to help at that time from his headquarters in Geneva.  Visser't Hooft wrote in his memoirs that "It is possible to live in a twilight between knowing and not knowing.  It is possible to refuse full realization of facts because one feels unable to face the implications of these facts."

I was asked once to speak at a Jewish old age home.  I said some of what I have just said now.  Afterwards, a woman approached me.  “But we didn’t know,” she said.  I said nothing.  So she added, “Of course, we’d heard rumors.”  “Did you believe them,” I asked.  “Yes,” she said firmly, looking straight at me.

Above all, I ask you, what about today?  Are we genuinely asking ourselves questions about that experience?  Did we do enough?  Did we care enough?  Were we just too scared to make waves?  Did we allow a sense of powerlessness to overcome us?  Was it really impossible to overcome our crippling lack of unity at this most crucial time?  Are we even acknowledging that there were choices?  That we made choices?

To point fingers in my own line of work, as I should, especially at Temple Israel of Hollywood, how is it that Woody Allen, in his 1987 film Radio Days, a warm, affectionate, nostalgic view of the war years—the years of the Holocaust—could casually portray American Jews as seemingly indifferent to, or completely ignorant of, the plight of their European brethren—and do so without one single critic, one single letter to the editor, one single Jewish publication to the best of my knowledge, bringing up with dismay, surprise or disapproval this aspect of the film.

Then there is Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, Lost in Yonkers, which was also made into a movie.  Lost in Yonkers is an affecting play which has to do with interfamily relations and ostensibly has nothing whatever to do with what I am talking about.

But the story is set within a family of German Jews in America in late 1942 and early 1943, precisely at the time when the news of the massacre of the Jews was becoming common knowledge.  And yet it contains only fleeting and silly references to Hitler or what was happening in Europe, once again as if what was going there was simply not on these people's minds!

And once again, without any critics, any Jewish machers, any Jewish organizations, any Jewish defense groups, speaking out to open this can of worms.  Indeed, in my mail the other day was a sollicitation for a fund-raising screening of the film on behalf of a Jewish organization with an important educational mission.

Woody Allen and Neil Simon are, no doubt, remembering the way it was for them, as children.  Whatever inner turmoil their parents may have been experiencing, whatever energy they may have expended in turning away from the inescapable news from Europe, this, understandably, may have eluded them.  As they were growing up in the postwar years, the subject was taboo.  And I believe I know a little about the power of taboo, and how even intelligent people can get controlled by it.

But the fact that today, so many years later, they can deal so cavalierly and inaccurately with such a crucial time for American Jews—this is as much an indictment of us as it is of them.

The question of what more American Jews could have done or should have done to help their European brethren—their uncles, their aunts, their cousins, those that had stayed behind (and there were few Jewish families then who didn't have relatives in Europe, half of the Jews of America then were foreign-born)—that question is a not a new one either, and it is not an easy one.  And I hope it is clear that ultimately my feelings are not primarily directed at that generation.  Whatever its failings, it suffered through an incredibly difficult and challenging and scary time.

People were still reeling from the Depression, and here was this humongous, excessive additional demand on their psyches.

My feelings are directed at us today, who have very little to fear from the truth, who have no excuse for not facing up to it, and who choose not to do so.

And yet even during the events themselves, others had led the way and I will close with one of them.  In January 1944, he was the young book editor of the magazine The New Republic but we now know him as the eminent literary critic Alfred Kazin [who died in 1999].  As the Holocaust raged and would continue raging for well over a year, Kazin wrote an article, prodded by the suicide in London of Shmuel Ziegelboim, and the text of that suicide note published in the New York Times.  This is what one eye-witness, a man who later entitled his brilliant memoirs New York Jew, thought at the time.

Shmuel Ziegelboim died," Kazin wrote, because he was finally unable to withstand the real despair of our time—which arises not out of the burning and the killing and the endless political betrayals, but out of a humiliation which some of us can still feel before so terrible a break in human solidarity.

I think he died, as so many greater men have already died morally, because he was unable to believe in a future built on so unrecognized and unreported a human isolation and barbarism as we know today.  I honestly believe that he was thinking not only of his own people at the end, but of the hollowness of a world in which such a massacre could have so little meaning.

Something has been done—and not by the Nazis—which can never be undone, except as we seek to understand it and to grow human again.  (...) Something has been set forth in Europe that is subtle, and suspended, and destructive.  That something is all our silent complicity in the massacre of the Jews (and surely not of them alone; it is merely that their deaths were so peculiarly hopeless).  For it means that men are not ashamed of what they have been in this time."

So the question that gnaws at my brain and eats at my heart as a Jew and as the father of two young American Jews, one of whom will be following me on this bimah in just a few months, is not so much what Americans could have done then and what American Jews could have done then, but whatever your judgment is on that, even if you remain convinced that Americans knew nothing, believed none of the reports, could have done nothing more than fight the war even if they had seen, read, heard, believed the reports, the fact remains that there was an experience here—not a void, and we are in part the product of that experience.

To be a bystander to a murder, I am sure, is to be changed by it.  To be a bystander to the Holocaust is to be changed by it for many generations to come.  As the American psychologist Carl Rogers put it, distilling his beliefs into a mere four words: "The facts are friendly."

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