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David S. Wyman
biographical notes by Pierre Sauvage
David S. Wyman during production of upcoming documentary And Crown Thy Good
The year 2004 marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of Chambon Foundation advisory board member Dr. David S. Wyman’s landmark study, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 [buy at Amazon]. For an upcoming publication, I have had occasion to comment on the importance of the book to me, but in the meantime, I cannot resist drawing on videotaped interviews that I’ve done with David to evoke a little of the background for the book.
It should be noted that all this time, David would probably have preferred discussing minor-league baseball fields. That, alas, was a lost cause, although his typically meticulous research in this area will no doubt lead to a singularly valuable and flavorful book. (David was kind enough to review what follows before its dissemination here.)
“Don’t forget to knock the cow-shit off your boots” was advice David Wyman long treasured from a fellow volunteer fireman in rural New Hampshire when Wyman was accepted into Harvard, at 32, for graduate studies. Uncertain, he asked a mentor to administer an I.Q. test to make sure he could really handle the school.
Having taught sixth grade and high school, with two young children to support, he had wanted to go on to become a teacher at a small college somewhere—certainly not a scholar (he still doesn’t consider himself an intellectual). After toying with the idea of doing something on China, he finally settled comfortably on a narrowly focused subject for his Ph. D. thesis.
Perhaps somebody else went on to study the Progressive Era in (conservative) New Hampshire or perhaps the subject is still up for grabs. In any event, as Wyman smilingly remembers it, “Walking down the street in Cambridge, here I am finally having gotten the thing pinned down, and out of nowhere comes this question: What did the United States do while the Jews were being persecuted and mass-murdered.”
Wyman says that do this day, he cannot figure out where the idea came from. What he remembers vividly is that he decided then and there that this is what he had to do. (He also ended up at large, publish-or-perish University of Massachusetts at Amherst.)
Much has been made of the fact that David is the grandson of two clergymen, but he insists that he was not raised in an “unusually” religious home. In seventh grade he got kicked out of Sunday school for throwing spitballs; according to his parents’ ground-rules, that meant that he had to attend church on Sundays. But as with all righteously-inclined people I have come to know something about, Wyman had important role models as he grew up.
His mother had been actively involved in social-justice issues, and had helped break the color bar at their Methodist church. His father would relentlessly say “Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes.” “It’s the gift from my parents that I feel best about,” he recalls. “We were taught not just tolerance, but a high degree of respect for all different people.” Sadly, neither his parents nor his brother lived to see the success David achieved seeking to live up to those standards.
Wyman’s childhood was during the Depression and the virulently antisemitic years of the late ’30s. His father had found a job as a milkman, whose route brought him through a Jewish community; Wyman remembers that his father had only positive things to say about the people along the milk route.
A rabbi once introduced Wyman as “impeccably non-Jewish.” Though in general he’s not sympathetic to this kind of thinking, Wyman has come to feel that perhaps this sensitive topic indeed needed a non-Jew. At least, it could not be said that it was the Jews complaining again.
Having built his own home (“probably the most creative time in my life—nothing has matched it, not even the writing”), he bought and sparingly remodeled a chicken coop to serve as an isolated study way out in the back, on the edge of the woods. There for some time he would literally burn the midnight oil (the best hours were midnight to three a.m., and initially there was no electricity) as he attempted to come to grips with his topic, with the steadfast encouragement and involvement of his beloved wife Midge. (Midge died suddenly in 2003, and is now tending to heavenly gardens.)
Having decided to break down his subject chronologically, Wyman initially published Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 in 1968. As he had expected, there wasn’t much of a reaction; two thousand copies were sold. The Holocaust hadn’t yet been let in to the American public consciousness, and there could hardly have been much interest in America’s role in it.
The former chicken coop got a phone line, however, after the 1984 publication of The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman hadn’t anticipated the impact that the book would have upon its release, and the countless speeches he would be called upon to make. Wyman places much of the blame for American inaction then on the Roosevelt Administration. Ten years later, Martin Ostrow’s masterful 1994 PBS documentary America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference, in which Wyman and his work played a large role, brought out nasty attacks from misguided (or self-interested) Roosevelt “keepers of the flame," along with some absurd speculation that rescue, or the possibility of rescue, was a “myth.” (I happen to be a living witness to rescue’s efficaciousness.)
But surely, a more challenging question to Wyman is whether a failure of leadership is not primarily a failure of those being led. “In theory, yes,” Wyman agrees. But he points to the polls that indicated that while more than one third of the American population was at least sympathetic to the notion of some sort of a domestic anti-Jewish campaign—and another third, typically, had ostensibly no opinion—the final third was ready to openly express its readiness to help the Jews if they were to become the objects of such an American campaign.
To make his point, he opens a file cabinet, and quickly locates a relevant letter, written by a woman in Oakalla, Texas, in January 1944 to her senator: “I have never liked the Jews. I have never pretended to like them, and German propaganda has played no part in the low opinion I have of them. But at no time has been my thinking been so low that I have wished them any harm. I have never wished them exterminated. The treatment they are receiving makes me want to help them because they need help. If we can do anything to help the European Jews escape the wrath of Hitler then we should do it because they have a right to live. It is not God’s will that they be slaughtered.”
Surely, Wyman resumes, this
is proof of the reservoir of relative goodwill that Roosevelt could have
drawn upon had he been inspired to do so.
Similarly perhaps, Wyman’s 1998 afterward to the paperback edition of The Abandonment of the Jews takes some comfort in the fact that “a commitment to take action when confronted with outbreaks of massive persecution has been affirmed at the highest levels of American civic responsibility”: “The responsibility to act has been recognized.” But Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 steamroller of a book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, makes it difficult to share much optimism about the extent of the lessons that have truly been learned from the 20th century. Wyman himself readily notes the increasing cynicism of our times.
When it comes to the American Jewish community, there has not yet been any real acknowledgement of the “break in solidarity” that literary critic Alfred Kazin had publicly lamented in 1944 while the Holocaust raged. Recently, the Jews who played such a large role in the success of Abandonment of the Jews didn’t come to the party when the issue of the American Jewish response was central to David Wyman’s new work. How else to explain that Wyman and Rafael Medoff’s recent blistering A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust [buy at Amazon] met only with sparse and tongue-tied approval? (Upcoming from the Varian Fry Institute: Not Idly By: The Peter Bergson Interview, a documentary short.)
Of course, there have been other important books pertaining to the American response to the Holocaust, and hopefully there will be many more. Maybe one day, the novelists, the dramatists, and even the moviemakers will add their necessary insights and speculations. Abandonment of the Jews continues to have its work cut out for it.
© Varian Fry Institute, 2008
For more information, please see America and the Holocaust--A Few Suggestions. Please also visit the indispensable David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
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© Copyright 2006, Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: May 20, 2010