Asking “What If?”

In New Book, YU Historian Imagines American Judaism If the Holocaust Never Happened

On March 30, Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, will launch his new book, The Holocaust Averted: An Alternate History of American Jewry 1938-1967 (Rutgers University Press) at the Yeshiva University Museum in a nationally-televised event sponsored by the Museum, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the American Jewish Historical Society.

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In his new book, YU historian Dr. Jeffrey Gurock imagines American Jewish history if the Holocaust had never happened.

In the book, Gurock imagines what might have happened to the Jewish community in the United States if the Holocaust had not occurred and forces readers to contemplate how the road to acceptance and empowerment for today’s American Jews could have been harder than it actually was. YU News sat down with Gurock to discuss some of the most intriguing moments in that period of history, both real and imagined, and their impact on the American Judaism of today.

What inspired you to write this book and how does it fit into the emerging academic field of counterfactual history?

A half dozen years ago, my wife and I went on what you might call an Adult March of the Living. We spent two weeks in places in the Ukraine and Poland. In Krakow, we saw what the Poles have done around the famed Remuh Shul: they have built a reconstructed Jewish quarter, with Yiddish bookstores, Jewish—albeit not kosher—food, Yiddish signs, and so on. We were there over Shabbat, and my wife and I said to each other, “What’s missing from this scene?” The obvious answer was Jews.

We started to wonder what life would be like if there had been no Holocaust. After all, it’s only eight hours from New York to Eastern Europe by plane. Students might spend their gap year not in Israel but at Lithuanian yeshivas; rich American Jews might have villas there. It reminded us so powerfully of just one aspect of that consummate tragedy for our people.

I also wondered: How many highly-assimilated American Jews of East European heritage, Jews whose families had been in America at that point for over a hundred years, would have any interest in going back?

When I started working on this book, I became aware that there is an emerging genre of historical writings called “counterfactual history.” Counterfactual history is a new way of doing history within the academy, and uses the story you are telling as a backdrop to ask questions about what real history was all about. Each chapter in my book ends with a synopsis that compares what I wrote to what actually happened, so students and faculty and others who read this book can better explore the realities we live with today.

What were some of the most surprising implications for real world history that you uncovered while writing this?

When we think as Jews and as historians about the years 1939-1945, they are among the bleakest period in all of Jewish history. It was a terrible time—we lost a third of our people. And when we think of the American experience, most people correctly focus on the activities of Jewish leadership and the American government, either rescuing or not rescuing Jews, which were both very dark sagas.

Yet at the same time—this may sound irreverent but it’s true—World War II happens to be a very good time for American Jews. During the war, two million of our Jewish boys and some of our girls fought in the American army, and that made us as a people feel that we were part of America. We came out of this war as an empowered people, a confident people. A lot of good things followed: the GI Bill, acceptance in suburbia, acceptance at universities, declines in anti-Semitism. All these are very positive developments for American Jews.

To understand exactly how good life became, you might look, as my book does, at the question of what American Jewish life would have been like had World War II not taken place. I’m suggesting that anti-Semitism would not have declined and acceptance of Jews would have come at a very high price. We can understand what American Jewish life looks like today by understanding what didn’t happen.

Here’s an example. Probably the best known incident in the rise of the State of Israel is the scene that is dramatized in the movie “Exodus” where, in 1946, the Irgun bombs the King David Hotel. But in my book, when that happens, not only are British officers murdered, but American peacekeepers—and the American government and people turn against Zionism. A little-known senator named Harry S. Truman says, “I can’t support Zionism because of these terrorists.” The Daily Mirror in New York runs a screaming headline, “Palestinian Jews Attacking America.” What do American Jews do? They run for cover. This “event” makes us contemplate the following real historical dynamic: Whatever you think of contemporary relationships between the American government and Israel, American Jews have never faced an American president who is explicitly anti-Israel. The closest we came was in 1956 in the middle of the Suez crisis. But even then the US Congress blocked anything John Foster Dulles wanted to do and the American people supported Israel.

This makes us rethink the level of commitment that American Jews have had for Israel. It’s never been a challenge for us. The whole idea of dual loyalty is something which we American Jews have talked about but doesn’t reflect reality. So I want people to start thinking about their commitment toward Israel and how the basis of that has never been challenged.

How likely is your version of events? Obviously it didn’t happen, but how close did it come?

There are certain turning points in history. The book really opens with the British and French standing up to Adolf Hitler at Munich. It also points out from real history that the Nazis were not fully ready for war in 1938 and the whole scenario could have therefore played out very differently. You have to read the first 100 pages to grasp all of the implications. Meanwhile in another part of the world, there was a great debate in the Japanese war council about whether to bomb Pearl Harbor, and General Hideki Tojo almost gets outvoted. It was a close call. I have this powerful image in my fictional account of sailors sunning themselves on the deck of the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941.

There’s a whole literature involving the question of President Franklin Roosevelt not running for a third term. He ended up running because we were about to get into the war. A lot of this is my imagination but it’s based on things that came very close to happening.

I also had to make decisions about who would be president of the United States going forward. Ike Eisenhower can’t become president because he wouldn’t have led the expeditionary force in World War II. And then I have Joe Kennedy, not John, becoming president. I enjoyed writing those scenes at Hyannis Port where they’re discussing around the table how they’re going to deal with Poppa Joe Kennedy. He’s one of the villains of the book—I have him bouncing back and forth because he’s an anti-Semite, but it’s also based on the fact that Joe Kennedy Sr. was a notorious figure in American history. There’s a lot of real history here, but everything is turned on its head. I think what this book really shows is that there are a lot of close calls in history.

How do you think the nature of religious life in America would have changed had the War not taken place?

The Hasidic community and the yeshiva world communities wouldn’t have been coming to America in the numbers that found refuge here. Frum Jews in America would have been looking back to Europe as far as their orientation was concerned and I think that Orthodoxy would have been not nearly as powerful as it ended up being in the 20th and 21st centuries. All those things were the results of the focus of religious life moving from Eastern Europe to Israel and the United States as a result of the Holocaust.

One of the things I talk about in the book is the fact that in real history, the Reform movement starts moving toward a pro-Zionist, pro-Israel orientation in the 1930s and 40s. The truth of the matter is that that did happen, but it was a very close vote within the Reform movement. All I have to do is change a few votes and they stay strongly anti-Zionist.

I often use the actual speeches and statements historical figures made at that time, but I turn them around. Winston Churchill gives a speech in the House of Commons and he says to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, “You’ve changed the course of history.” Those are his exact words, except his original intention was, “You’ve ruined things.” In my book, the two hug in the middle of the Commons, because they’re now on the same side.

Another interesting piece here is Hjalmar Schacht, who in my book ends up replacing Adolf Eichmann on the Jewish Question after 1938 because the SS has to deal with dissenters who question a war that is not proceeding as Hitler had predicted. Schacht was a real person, no great lover of Jews for sure, but he was acquitted at Nuremberg because he did not commit war crimes. In real history, when he’s put in charge of the German economy in the early 1930s, he asks Adolf Hitler, “How should I deal with Jews and the economy?” Hitler says, “Do what you have to do.”

In my book I have him asking that same question in 1938, when he is put in charge of the Jewish question. My story reminds us that as much at the Nazis were committed to destroying the Jews- and never deviated from their ultimate goal- other concerns often got in the way until 1938. In a sense this part of the book will help those who are studying the Holocaust better comprehend the periodization of the destruction of European Jewry.