Wyman Institute Holds Successful Conference On America’s Response To The Holocaust

News Release
May 20, 2004

The Wyman Institute’s campaign to educate young Americans about their nation’s response to the Holocaust was launched at a lively and well-attended conference in New York City in May.

It was standing room-only in the main auditorium at the Ramaz school in upper Manhattan, as conference chair Nina K. Solarz welcomed some one hundred and fifty delegates to the opening session of the Wyman Institute’s first major public conference, “Teaching and Learning About America’s Response to the Holocaust.” Mrs. Solarz is also chair of the Wyman Institute’s Task Force on Education.

The delegates were also welcomed by the conference host and Ramaz principal, Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein, author of Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust.

Kyle Haver of the New York City Department of Education read a message from New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who praised the Institute’s work and said that America’s response to the Holocaust should be part of the Holocaust studies curriculum in the city’s schools.

Former U.S. Congressman Stephen J. Solarz then introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Professor David S. Wyman, who presented an overview of the American response to the Nazi genocide.

The first panel consisted of adult children and grandchildren of Americans who spoke out for rescue from the Holocaust.

Dr. Rebecca Kook, who teaches political science at Ben-Gurion University and is a member of the Wyman Institute’s Academic Council, spoke about her father, Hillel Kook, better known to the world as Peter Bergson, leader of the public campaign to bring about U.S. rescue of Jews from the Holocaust.

Professor David Golinkin, who is a member of the Wyman Institute Advisory Committee and president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (the Jerusalem campus of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), spoke about his father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin. Rabbi Golinkin was the leader of a student activist group that worked to raise public awareness of the Holocaust. Prof. Golinkin is also the grandson of Rabbi Mordechai Golinkin, who was one of the 400 rabbis who marched to the White House in 1943 to plead for rescue.

William Bingham, an attorney, recalled the rescue work of his father, Hiram Bingham IV, a courageous American consular official in France who, in defiance of the State Department, helped smuggle Jewish refugees out of occupied France in 1940 and 1941. He also showed a rare film clip of his father, together with rescue hero Varian Fry, meeting with the famous painter Marc Chagall, just before they smuggled him out of France.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, a prominent political consultant in Washington, D.C. and former domestic policy adviser in the White House, described the work of his father, Yitshaq Ben-Ami, who was Peter Bergson’s right-hand man and played a central role in the work of the Bergson group.

Ellen Adler, executive chair of the Stella Adler Studio for Acting and a member of the Wyman Institute’s Arts and Letters Council, spoke of her mother, Stella Adler, the famous actress and acting coach who during the 1940s was a prominent and active member of the Bergson group. She vividly recalled, as a teenager, coming home from school to find their living room filled with famous young entertainers –Marlon Brando and Leonard Bernstein, among others– whom her mother would bring to Bergson meetings in their home.

Nathan Lewin, a prominent attorney and constitutional law scholar in Washington D.C. recounted the activism of his father, Isaac Lewin, who was involved with the Vaad Ha-hatzala, the Orthodox Holocaust rescue group. Isaac Lewin was also one of the 400 rabbis who marched to the White House in 1943.

Jack Yampolsky, who is the Wyman Institute’s accountant, spoke about his father, Louis Yampolsky, who was the accountant for the Bergson group. The role that Louis Yampolsky played was significant, since Bergson’s political enemies repeatedly enlisted the Internal Revenue Service to hunt for financial irregularities in order to shut him down.

Deborah Newman Fine spoke about her grandfather, Louis Newman, a Reform rabbi from Temple Rodeph Shalom, who worked closely with Yitshaq Ben-Ami to smuggle Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine on the eve of the Holocaust.

Dr. Medoff also noted the presence in the audience of a number of other individuals who were closely connected to this subject Phyllis Yampolsky, Louis’s daughter; Rabbi Jonathan Lipnick of the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose father Jerry was one of the leaders of Noah Golinkin’s student activist group; and Jonathan Stern, grandson of Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, the Bergson group’s lobbyist on Capitol Hill. Also in the audience was Miriam “Chicky” Chaiken, who was a member of the staff of the Bergson group and worked in their office.

The Wyman Institute also received messages of support from several individuals who were not able to attend: Alexandra Szyk Bracie, daughter of the famous artist and Bergson group activist Arthur Szyk; Judy Selden, daughter of another Bergson group leader, Harry Selden; and the family of U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler, one of the most outspoken voices in Congress for rescue.

After lunch, the conference resumed with a panel on American media coverage of the Holocaust. The first speaker was Bernard Kalb, veteran correspondent for NBC News, CBS News, and the New York Times, who offered reflections on the level of information available to the American public about the Nazi genocide.

Next was Laurel Leff, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (to be published by Cambridge University Press).

Highlights of Prof. Leff’s talk:

“From the start of the war in Europe on September 1, 1939 to its end nearly six years later, the New York Times and other mass media treated the persecution and ultimately the annihilation of the Jews of Europe as a secondary story. They reported it. In fact, from September 1939 through May 1945, the Times published 1,186 stories about what was happening to the Jews of Europe, or an average of 17 stories a month. But the story never received the continuous attention or prominent play that a story about the unprecedented attempt to wipe out an entire people deserved. The story of the Holocaust — meaning articles that focused on the discrimination, deportation, and destruction of the Jews — made the Times front page only 26 times, and only in six of those stories were Jews identified as the primary victims.

“Never did front-page stories appear back to back, nor did one follow another over a span of a few days. And not once did the story lead the paper, meaning appear in the right-hand column reserved for the day’s most important news — not even when the concentration camps were liberated at the end of the war. When the Holocaust made the Times front page, the stories obscured the fact that most of the victims were Jews, referring to them instead as refugees or persecuted minorities. In addition, the Times only intermittently and timidly editorialized about the extermination of the Jews, and the paper rarely highlighted it in either the Week in Review or the magazine section.

“Although the lack of direct observation, skepticism about atrocity stories and the dominance of war news partially explain the neglect of what many now consider to be the 20th century’s most important news story, they were not decisive factors. Instead, the press did not recognize the importance of what was happening to European Jews largely because it did not directly affect American interests. For the most part, journalists considered the fate of European Jews to be a footnote to the much more important story of Nazi conquest and thus to be grouped with the persecution of other oppressed people. Interestingly, some of the most important journalists, such as columnist Walter Lippmann and the New York Times’ Arthur Sulzberger and Arthur Krock, were themselves Jews who were reluctant to assert or, in some cases, acknowledge their Jewishness. So even though Jews like themselves were being persecuted, in some cases members of their extended families, they were not willing to engage in what might be perceived as special pleading by calling attention to the Jews’ fate. So the Jew remained an “other” even to institutions controlled by Jews.

The Times’ downplaying of the Holocaust was particularly important. The Times’ judgment that the murder of millions of Jews was a relatively unimportant story reverberated among other journalists trying to assess the news, among Jewish groups trying to arouse public opinion, and among government leaders trying to decide on an American response.

“By reporting the information in isolated, inside stories, the newspaper did almost nothing to help readers understand its importance. The few hundred words about the Holocaust the Times published every couple of days were hard to find amidst a million other words. So Times readers, whether ordinary citizens or opinion makers, could legitimately have claimed not to know, or at least, not to have understood what was happening to the Jews. A generally ignorant American public made it easier for government leaders to take action –or not — without having to worry about the possible response. As a result, the Times contributed to the conditions that led to inaction even in the face of considerable information.”

Also speaking on the media panel was Benyamin Korn, associate director of the Wyman Institute and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and Miami Jewish Tribune. He recounted the little-known story of Exponent editor Milton Feldman, who in 1942-1943 was outspoken in challenging the Roosevelt administration’s apathy toward European Jewry — until the newspaper was purchased early in 1944 by the local Jewish Federation, which replaced the staff and substantially changed the content of the newspaper.

The conference then divided into two simultaneous sessions. In the main auditorium, the delegates viewed a 53-minute documentary about the Allies’ refusal to bomb Auschwitz, They Looked Away, narrated by Mike Wallace. The film’s director Stuart Erdheim, a member of the Wyman Institute’s Arts and Letters Council, answered questions from the audience afterwards.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Ramaz building, teachers attended a workshop on Teaching About America’s Response to the Holocaust, led by Judi Freeman, the Seevak Chair in History at the prestigious Boston Latin School. A widely respected Holocaust educator, Ms. Freeman has led workshops for teachers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, among her many accomplishments.

The final session of the day featured “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust: Art in the Service of Humanity,” an extraordinary exhibit of 1940s editorial cartoons that challenged America’s response to news of the Holocaust.

“At a time when many Americans were indifferent to the plight of Europe’s Jews, these courageous artists used their talents to try to rouse America’s conscience,” Dr. Medoff said. The exhibit features the work of editorial cartoonists Eric Godal, Arthur Szyk, Stan Mac Govern, A.W. MacKenzie and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Werner.

Art professor Rob Stolzer of the University of Wisconsin, who assisted with the exhibit preparations (and is a member of the Wyman Institute’s Arts & Letters Council) commented: “Political cartoons had the unique advantage of an immediate response to important news and the ability to directly reach the general public. Few mediums during that period allowed for such a direct and topical approach.”

The exhibit’s logo and illustrated introduction were designed by legendary comic book artist and editor Joe Kubert, whose own critically-acclaimed new book, ‘Yossel: April 19, 1943,’ has broken new ground in the use of comic art to teach about the Holocaust.

At the session, Kubert offered comments and answered many questions from the audience. He was accompanied by his son Adam Kubert, one of the top artists at Marvel Comics.

To see the cartoons, click here.

In his concluding remarks at the end of the conference, Dr. Medoff said:

“What we have begun at this conference will continue and grow in the weeks and months ahead. We are equipping teachers with the information and tools to teach their students the moral lessons of America’s response to the Holocaust. We have prepared curriculum units about those who spoke out,. We will continue to serve as a resource to get this information into classrooms around the country. We have brought together the children and grandchildren of those who spoke out for rescue, to tell their story. And we will work to make sure their message continues to reach the public. We have shed new light on vitally important subjects such as the American’s media’s coverage of the Holocaust, and we will continue to do so.”