“For the Sin of Silence During the Holocaust”

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

On Yom Kippur, in synagogues throughout the country, American Jews will lightly strike their chests while reciting the Al Chet, the litany of confessions for sins committed during the previous year. “For the sin of lying…. For the sin of gossiping…. For the sin of being disrespectful….” and so on.

Some years ago, one of the most prominent rabbis in America made a startling suggestion–that American Jews should add an Al Chet to acknowledge the community’s failure to respond adequately to news of the mass killing of European Jews during the Holocaust. Although the proposal evidently was never implemented, statements made recently by several prominent Jewish leaders have gone a long way in that direction.

The Al Chet suggestion came from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), longtime head of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school and a key figure in the shaping of Modern Orthodox Judaism. In a taped lecture at YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work on December 24, 1973, Rabbi Soloveitchik remarked that “during the Holocaust period,” many American Jews were not sufficiently concerned “with our brethren, with our fellow Jews, and we let millions of Jews go down the drain.”

Therefore, he said, “to the list of Al Chets of the chatayim [sins] we enumerate on Yom Kippur, we should add another Al Chet. Perhaps it would be the worst, the most horrible one – Al chet shechatanu lefanecha bera’inu tzoras nafshoseihem shel acheinu bais Yisroel shehischananu eileinu v’lo shamanu [‘For the sin that we have sinned before You by seeing the suffering of our Jewish brethren who called to us and we did not listen’].”

Statements of this sort were unheard of in the first decades after the war, when there was little public discussion among American Jews about their response to the Holocaust. Perhaps the memories and the wounds were too fresh. Perhaps the fact that many of the Jewish leaders whose records merited scrutiny still held positions of leadership discouraged a serious reckoning.

That began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, as a younger generation of American Jews started asking questions about the actions of their elders. Articles about the subject began appearing more frequently in Jewish periodicals. Activists in the Soviet Jewry movement cited American Jewry’s lethargic response to the Holocaust as an impetus for their own protests. “We didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of that generation,” Glenn Richter, director of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, recalls.

By 1981, there was sufficient interest in the topic to bring about the creation of the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, a committee of Jewish communal figures intending to produce the first comprehensive examination of US Jewry’s Holocaust record . The acrimony that engulfed the commission’s work and led to its dissolution revealed still-lingering sensitivities. Critics of the Jewish leadership cried whitewash, while defenders of the establishment rallied ’round the wagons. But the controversy did galvanize a healthy public discussion.

New scholarly research in the 1980s permanently reshaped the debate. Monty Penkower (The Jews Were Expendable, 1982), David Wyman (The Abandonment of the Jews, 1984), Haskel Lookstein (Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?, 1984) and others revealed unflattering new information about American Jewry and the Holocaust. They chronicled the missed opportunities to press for Allied rescue of refugees, the petty in-fighting between Jewish groups that sapped communal time and energy, the unsavory attacks by Jewish leaders against the activist Bergson Group. What the historians found essentially confirmed what the critics had suspected.

During the past several years, remarks made by several prominent Jewish leaders have dramatically illustrated how much attitudes have changed over the years. At a 2007 conference of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Michael Miller, executive director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, and Seymour Reich, past president of B’nai B’rith and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, sharply criticized their predecessors’ wartime record. Reich declared: ” I have come here today, as a veteran of the Jewish establishment, to say unequivocally: the Jewish leaders in the 1940s were wrong.”

Last year, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, president of Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College, went so far as to assert that Rabbi Stephen Wise “failed miserably” in his response to the Holocaust. The news from Europe was certainly unprecedented, he said, but Jewish leaders such as Wise “had an obligation to be sufficiently flexible and imaginative to deal with unprecedented situations.” Rabbi Ellenson’s bold statement was significant not only because Wise was the most prominent American Jewish leader of the 1940s, but also because he was the founder and longtime leader of the very institution over which Ellenson himself now presides.

These Jewish leaders who have criticized the wartime Jewish establishment may not have phrased their remarks in the form of an Al Chet, but they certainly spoke in the spirit of the forthright acknowledgment Rabbi Soloveitchik evidently had in mind.

September 2009