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Zornberg's "Jews, Quakers and the Holocaust"

Jews, Quakers and the Holocaust: The Struggle to Save the Lives of Twenty-Thousand Children
By Ira Zornberg

Available in both Kindle and paperback editions from Amazon.com.


It is customary in reviews of this sort to state one's biases upfront. With author Ira Zornberg, I have an enormous bias. As I said in an interview in Full Context , Ira Zornberg had a "big influence on me." He was my Social Studies teacher at John Dewey High School, who was the first teacher in the United States to bring the study of the Holocaust to high school students." I credit him for his encouragement of my growing political philosophy and for my first forays into political writing and academic editing. Indeed, he was the faculty advisor of the school's social studies newspaper, Gadfly, of which I eventually became editor-in-chief. I knew that I was making waves when one of the front-page essays I wrote, criticizing the school's "Young Socialist Alliance," ended up face forward in the boy's bathroom, in the urinal, where it had been baptized by human excrement. If they ain't talkin' about you, or pissin' on you, you ain't makin' a difference. One of the lessons I learned early on.

But the lessons I learned from Zornberg in that trailblazing class on the Holocaust were lessons I simply could never have learned anywhere else or in any other gifted high school. At least back then, John Dewey High School was a shining beacon that encouraged independent study. With a school year divided into five cycles, the school provided specialized course offerings that ran the gamut from the Crusades to the Kennedy assassination. But Zornberg's course was unique for its intensity and sheer depth. We studied the origins of anti-Semitism, the birth of the national socialist movement in Germany, the waning days of the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Third Reich, and the tribalist. racist, and anti-Semitic cultural premises that empowered it. Such premises provided a rationale for a "Final Solution" that led to the inversion of the rule of law, the destruction of "undesirables," and a war against European Jewry that culminated in a network of concentration camps and the systematic slaughter of millions of people.

Ultimately, however, the biggest lesson that Zornberg taught me was to be true to your convictions, to engage your critics constructively, and to value civil discourse. I learned too that this was a man who embodied intellectual honesty and a sense of justice that required a recognition of the inviolability of individual human dignity. His serious commitment to the teaching of history and his remarkable capacity as mentor and guide, made an indelible mark on my young student's mind. Then, as today, I honor him, and I am proud to call him my friend.

So, when Superstorm Sandy hit, and I learned that Zornberg had lost virtually all of his library and his 40+ years of lesson plans, I offered to send him all the copious notes I took from his Holocaust class. After the October 10, 2013 fire that nearly consumed our apartment, I had the occasion to completely reorganize my file system, and among the things that survived were all my notes and papers from his superb course, which I attended as a senior at Dewey. I photocopied them and sent them to him; he expressed appreciation for the accuracy of my notetaking, which reflected the mind of a young student, whose answers raised even more questions, questions that could never be answered quite to my satisfaction. After all, students of history and even a generation of scholars who have written hundreds of books in the Holocaust, have been probing the madness of genocide for eons, and it is virtually impossible to wrap one's mind around the kind of phenomenon that could possibly give birth to a multiplicity of savage cruelties, ingenious forms of torture, and sophisticated instruments of mass murder, all used by real human beings to destroy the lives of other real human beings. I remember discovering Ayn Rand during that final year of high school, and I shared Leonard Peikoff's book, The Ominous Parallels, with my teacher. But the nightmare of the Holocaust remains deeply embedded in my mind, if only for the sheer scale of human horror that it exhibited.

Which makes reviewing his new book all the more wonderful---because this man of honor has turned out a book that reflects all the virtues and values he exemplified as a great teacher. And he is teaching us still. I was ecstatic to learn of my former teacher's continuing work in this area of study. His new book on the subject, Jews, Quakers and the Holocaust: The Struggle to Save the Lives of Twenty-Thousand Children, is more than a revelation; it is a testament not only to the horrors of Nazi Germany, but to the heroic, largely thwarted, efforts of some to save the lives of others: those who were slated for extermination by Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. As Zornberg tells us in his introduction, this book

describes the causes of the immigration crisis of 1939, the response of those who were the targets of its venom, the efforts of American Jews to assist people of their faith, the denial of locations for resettlement, the Kindertransport in Europe, and the struggle led by Christians who fought to save the lives of Jewish children. It identifies people who labored to save the lives of the Jewish children. It cites the arguments and acts of those who fought for the passage of the Wagner-Rogers Bill, and the arguments employed by its adversaries. The struggle to win congressional approval for that bill failed.
This is an American story because it is a part of the history and debate over the nature of U.S. immigration policies. . . . This story adds to our common knowledge of the U.S. immigration policies, and will hopefully provide an additional basis for constructive contemporary reasoning.

Zornberg provides us first with an historical context, a portrait of a complex "background" to the cataclysm that was to engulf Germay, Europe, and eventually the world. We move from the tribalist and racist biases that were deeply embedded in German culture to the birth of the Nuremberg Laws, which encoded not the rule of law, but the rule of Aryan blood and the criminalization of Jewish blood. He discusses at length the response of German Jews to this perversion of law. Many emigrated to other countries. Indeed, an estimated 60,000 German Jews were among the
emigrees, and many of them had fought loyally as Germans during World War I. They eventually reached Palestine due to a "transfer agreement" between the German finance ministry and the Jewish Agency in Palestine.

We are given glimpses of rapidly unfolding events that both expressed and magnified the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime. One of those glimpses of discrimination was on display at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, including the last minute removal of Marty Glickman" of the U.S. track team from several Olympic track events (Glickman was a classmate of my mother's at James Madison High School).

In 1938, the Night of Broken Glass ("Kristallnacht") followed, and slowly the exits from Europe were closing to Jews who sought to escape from the onslaught of Nazi brutality. It was in the wake of Kristallnacht, Zornberg tells us, that the "Quakers were to assume important roles in the effort to assist Jews," focusing especially on rescuing Jewish children from German territories.

It is not that Jews were silent during these years of growing repression. But the response of Jews and non-Jews alike, in America, was far more complicated and complex. Anti-Semitism knew no national boundaries, and it was alive and well in the United States of America, a country whose various government sterilization programs for the "unfit" inspired Hitler himself.

Yes, the United States had a history of welcoming immigrants. Indeed, the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, was not a hollow symbol taking up space in New York Harbor. It gave expression to the principles of freedom that encapsulated the promise of America. And yet, throughout U.S. history, various quotas on immigration existed, and in the context of post-World War I America, the "Emergency Quota Act of 1921" was enacted, illustrative of the emergent, and growing, isolationist political culture. By the time of the Great Depression, with unemployment reaching historic heights, Zornberg writes, the demands for even greater "limits to immigration came from many quarters, and they provided a cover for those whose intent was to limit the immigration of Jews without openly saying so.

So, though many Jews fought hard to lobby Congress and other organizations to make America a refuge for those seeking freedom from Nazi tyranny, they were keenly aware that anti-Semitism was a reality in the U.S., and, Zornberg argues, this "helps explain why many Jewish organizations chose to be supportive of Christian efforts to assist refugees rather than assume the public face of those efforts," which would have only further fueled such anti-Semitism.

The portrait Zornberg paints of these heroic Christian efforts is both poignant and instructive.

The story is a testament to a Quaker act of human decency and it is at the soul of Zornberg's work in this extraordinary book. It is an inspiring tale that uplifts the human spirit. The attention to detail that Zornberg exhibits in his exploration of this historical episode is exemplary. We learn that politics is politics no matter what era of history we study. He examines in great detail the heroic roles of such people as New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marion Kenworthy in calling for an American Kindertransport and of Clarence Pickett of the Quakers' American Friends Service Committee in fighting for the passage of the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would have allowed for the entrance into America of 20,000 Jewish children under the age of 14. The bill never came to a vote, getting no help from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was clearly "not emotionally committed to saving European Jews." The political machinations that went on in the fight for this bill are revealed by Zornberg in all their shameful details.

Ultimately, of course, the Quakers were involved in worldwide efforts to stem the tide of terror; the historical record shows that the American Friends Service Committee "chose Jewish children from [their] homes and refugee camps in southern France for transfer to the United States under the auspices of the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children," exhibiting "that interfaith activity on behalf of European Jews could be successful."

But this success, however modest, does not erase the dishonorable actions of politicians and various opinion-makers who brought the Wagner-Rogers Bill down to defeat.

I must say that Zornberg's epilogue alone is worth the price of admission. He reminds us that in 1939, when the Wagner-Rogers Bill was crushed by political cowardice, many Americans had embraced an Action comic book hero in Superman, a character developed by Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, two Jews living in Cleveland. Zornberg concludes powerfully:

As an adult, Superman fights the forces of evil, intent upon world domination. In embracing Superman as an American hero, Americans were embracing a survivng child, an alien, as a defender of our nation. This was something our lawmakers in the spring of 1939 refused to do.

The problem of immigration is surely one that continues to plague the U.S. political landscape to this very day; the issues may differ considerably from the crises of the 1930s, but the threats today are certainly no worse than the threats posed by the Third Reich. If nothing else, Zornberg's book provokes us to focus on yesterday's history and today's issues with the care of a highly-skilled surgeon's scalpel, rather than with the sledgehammer of the various demagogues among us.

This is a five-star book that I cannot more strongly recommend. In a summary of the above review, I say at Amazon.com ("A Provocative History That Speaks to Contemporary Immigration Issues"):

Zornberg’s new book, Jews, Quakers and the Holocaust: The Struggle to Save the Lives of Twenty-Thousand Children, is more than a revelation; it is a testament not only to the horrors of Nazi Germany, but to the heroic efforts of some to save the lives of those who were slated for extermination by Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. … The story of the Quaker’s attempts to save the lives of Jewish children is a story of human decency that reveals the soul of Zornberg's work; it is an inspiring tale that uplifts the human spirit…. The problem of immigration is surely one that continues to plague the U.S. landscape to this very day; the issues may differ considerably from the crises of the 1930s, but the threats today are certainly no worse than the threats posed by the Third Reich. If nothing else, Zornberg's book provokes us to think through yesterday's history and today's issues with the care of a highly-skilled surgeon's scalpel, rather than with the sledgehammer of the various demagogues among us. This is a five-star book that I cannot more strongly recommend.