Jonathan Sarna Lectures on Re-evaluating the Role of American Jewry during the Holocaust

Holocaust scholarship has generally been critical of the role of American Jewry during the Shoah. American Jews, many believe, could have done much more than they did to save the Jews of Europe.

The JDC stands as the great exception to “knew nothing, did nothing” generalizations. Scholarship shows that it quietly “saved hundreds of thousands of lives in its tireless efforts to rescue Jews from Europe.” A growing body of literature shows that the JDC did not work alone. Others too worked clandestinely and behind the scenes. Recent scholarship shows that Jews across the United States secretly spied on the German Bund during the 1930s and worked to undermine its pro-Nazi activities. Much has recently appeared concerning individuals and groups, working under the radar, who rescued rabbis, scholars, labor leaders, children, and other Jews, obtaining precious immigration certificates to bring them into the country and settle them without drawing public attention. A Jewish sponsored news service, the Overseas News Agency, uncovered and disseminated news of the persecution and murder of Jews that would never have appeared in the general press had their “Jewish origin” been exposed. And books on the Jewish Labor Committee and the World Jewish Congress detail how hard they secretly worked to save Europe’s Jews.

This scholarship, which Jonathan Sarna discussed in this lecture, points to the need for a full-scale reevaluation of American Jewry’s role in saving Jews and fighting Nazism during the Holocaust years.

This program was co-sponsored by the JDC Archives, JDC Ambassadors and The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History as well as the Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He is also past president of the Association for Jewish Studies and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. He is also a JDC Board member and serves on JDC’s Archives Committee.

Dr. Sarna is the author or editor of more than 30 books on American Jewish history and life. His American Judaism: A History (Yale 2004), recently published in a second edition, won the 2004 “Everett Jewish Book of the Year Award” from the Jewish Book Council. His most recent books are Coming to Terms with America (JPS, 2021) and (with Benjamin Shapell) Lincoln and the Jews: A History (St. Martin’s, 2015).