American Responses to the Holocaust

Transatlantic Perspectives

by Hans Krabbendam (Volume editor) Derek Rubin (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 216 Pages
Series: Interamericana, Volume 12


This collection puts the topic of Jewish Studies and Holocaust Studies in a new American Studies perspective. This perspective compares the similarities and differences in responses and their transatlantic interaction. As the Holocaust grew into an important factor in American culture, it also became a subject of American Studies, both as a window on American trends and as a topic to which outsiders responded. When Americans responded to information on the early signs of the Holocaust, they were dependent on European official and informal sources. Some were confirmed, others were contradicted; some were ignored, others provoked a response. This book follows the chronology of this transatlantic exchange, including the alleged abandonment of the Jews in Europe and the post-war attention to the Holocaust victims.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Transatlantic Perspectives on American Responses to the Holocaust: An Introduction (Hans Krabbendam and Derek Rubin)
  • Going Public In Support: Reconsidering American Public Discourse About Nazi Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (Jeffrey Demsky)
  • Allied Governments’ Responses to Reports About the Nazi Extermination Campaign Against the Jews in 1944 (Jan Láníček)
  • No Generation of Silence: American Jews Confront the Catastrophe in the Post-War Years (Hasia Diner)
  • Towards Consensus? American Jewish Organizations in France after the Shoah (Laura Hobson Faure)
  • National Identity, Cultural Revival, and National Struggle: The World Jewish Congress, American Jewry, and the Challenge of Jewish Diaspora in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Zohar Segev)
  • Echoes of the Shoah: The 1951 Resettlement of Budapest’s Jews (David S. Frey)
  • The Holocaust Response in American and Soviet Cultures as a Reflection of the Different War Experiences and Cold War Politics (Viktoria Sukovata)
  • Intermittently Americanized? Italian Debates on Holocaust Cultural Products (Emiliano Perra)
  • The Creation of Characters That Condemn and Characters That Redeem in American and Austrian Dramas About the Holocaust (Dana Rufolo)
  • Between Memory and Post-memory: Once More on the Awkward Marriage of the Holocaust and the American Mass Media (Małgorzata Pakier)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← 6 | 7 →

Hans Krabbendam and Derek Rubin

Transatlantic Perspectives on American Responses to the Holocaust: An Introduction

The Holocaust figures large in American memory. The number of museums and research centers is growing and the Holocaust functions as a point of reference in debates about domestic issues, slavery and native Americans. Also outside the United States the American perspective circulates when new films, such as Son of Saul (2015) are released and new museums, such as the National Holocaust Memorial and Museum in the Netherlands are opening. Increasingly the trend of differentiation and multiplication of perspectives on the Holocaust are accepted. Researchers have acknowledged the use of the Holocaust as an instrument to serve political or economic goals, but also the opportunity to seriously examine universal human rights.1 In Europe the Holocaust was framed as a symbol of evil that the European Community now has overcome. This may sound a bit too optimistic and celebratory, but reminds us that the Holocaust serves as a serious mode of reflection on the foundations needed to protect humanity. These two issues, the particular and the universal and the tension between the two is visible in the essays in this volume. They cover the dynamics of responses to the Holocaust from both sides of the Atlantic in which American and European perspectives interact, from the earliest moment on, when the first glimpses of the terror became public. ← 7 | 8 →

All essays revolve around American responses. When Hilene Flanzbaum complained in 1999 about the “Americanization of the Holocaust” he meant something different from similar European complaints. Europeans used the term to reject sensationalist exploitation of the Holocaust, ascribed to the dominance of American products of popular culture. Flanzbaum had an inside view. He deplored the lack of solid knowledge about the Holocaust in America, the replacement of real knowledge by sanitized versions of the horrors and the downplaying of the Jewish factor in these representations. In a way this was inevitable since the Holocaust was experienced indirectly and mediation had to take place. Flanzbaum described that the American Jewish community had the means and the motives to commemorate and inform, and had to stay distinct against pressures of adaptation to the public ways of media. These factors, the strong interest, the strong means of mediation propelled a heated debate. Though these debates delayed the completion of monuments and museums, they deepened reflection on Holocaust memory.

Peter Novick deplored this strong presence of the Holocaust in American consciousness, because it revealed a pathology in American society: it defined the Jews as victims, and curtailed a mature understanding of the Holocaust. The uniqueness of the Holocaust was broadened to have a universalist implication in support of other victims. For Jews in America the memory of the Holocaust combined a particular and a universal feature: it gave them a separate identity in the country and connected them with global moral issues. While Americans might find this acceptable because it suited their own needs, voices of rejection have become more critical of commercial popularization and commodification, moving towards trivialization. In the first 15 years after the end of World War II the return of soldiers, the arrival of victims, and the Eichmann trial a wave of articles and books cast the survivor in the role of the hero.

Other voices are less pessimistic, in 1990, Michael Berenbaum argued that Americanization of the Holocaust connects the history of the Holocaust to American debates “about pluralism, tolerance, democracy, and human rights that America tells about itself.”2 Behind these debates about mediation lies the concern that these acts and products normalize the horrendous event. This concern subjects each new contribution to a moral inspection, and is suspicious of the automatism that each victim going public becomes a celebrity. Connecting the Holocaust to other phenomena risks stripping the language of meaning. ← 8 | 9 →

As the Holocaust grew into an omnipresent event in American culture, it also became a subject of American studies, both as a window on internal trends and as a topic to which outsiders responded. The present collection makes this kind of debate the core of its investigation by putting what has traditionally been the focus of Jewish Studies and Holocaust studies in a new American studies perspective. This perspective emphasizes a comparative approach that looks at the similarities and differences between responses in Europe and the United States, and the transatlantic interaction. When Americans responded to information on the early signs of the Holocaust, they were dependent on European sources; they received official and informal responses, some were confirmed, others were contradicted; some were ignored, others provoked a response. This book follows the chronology of this transatlantic exchange, which begins with the debate whether or not the American authorities turned a cold shoulder to European Jews. This alleged abandonment of the Jews in Europe created a contrast with the post-war attention for the Holocaust victims.

Jeffrey Demsky revisits the opposition to Nazi Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in America. He claims that historians writing about this theme have often felt reluctant to introduce fresh theories, methods, and data, which blocked the view on a countermovement of voices criticizing Nazi atrocities, which was much stronger than assumed. The evidence of domestic anti-Semitism and xenophobia built up to an image of American similarity to Europe’s lack of defiance to the Nazi threat, narrowing the gap between Europe and America, as both were guilty of avoiding responsibility. Demsky turns away from an exclusive concentration on executive decisions and public opinion, and includes legislative initiatives. His essay is a plea to look for counter examples to American isolationism/nativism; and they can be found. While unsuccessful in turning the tide for Jews seeking asylum, the Dickstein committee did succeed in putting Nazi propaganda on the table. Later the Federal Information Office spread information brochures on Anti-Semitism and atrocities. Exposing Nazi bigotry and contrasting it with American liberty served to build support for the war and encouraged a broader concern for human rights.

Closely related to this issue, and even more laden with moral indignation, is the Allies governments’ failure to stop the Holocaust by military interventions in 1944. Jan Láníček enters this debate with a detailed analysis of the reception and publication of the most extensive report on the Holocaust which escaped Jews brought to the allies in 1944. These stories were the very first eyewitness reports on the situation in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Láníček places the response of the US and the UK governments in a broader perspective. Their primary concern was ← 9 | 10 → to achieve a military victory, which they saw as the only way to liberate the Nazi victims, and they would not spare military equipment for humanitarian intervention. Some historians have suggested a causal link between popular anti-Semitism and failing policies. Without suggesting this direct link Láníček shows that the authorities took into account public opinion that did not favor the Jews, and were hesitant about concentrating too exclusively on the fate of the Jews, which might reduce broad support for the war. Moreover, they were careful of accepting these atrocity reports too easily and they were concerned for the safety of their POWs. Both transatlantic allied partners shared these concerns that delayed the release of the eyewitness report, until it hit the American press when the camps were approached by Russian troops.

The theme of speaking or keeping silent continued after the war. Hasia Diner challenges the widespread myth that survivors who came to America did not want to share their experiences. Diner richly documents her claim that survivors were not passive recipients of American benefactors, but actively shared their survival stories and participated in small-scale memorials. In the 1980s, oral history projects and other organized initiatives to document the Holocaust were started and the 1960s baby boom generation challenged the first generation of survivors, feeding the idea that the previous generation had remained passive. But in fact, the new generation belonged to established American Jewish organizations or created new programs, acting in public to call attention to other displaced persons and to demand compensation or restitution of lost possessions. Also the new generation demonstrated its frontal opposition to expressions of anti-Semitism in the US in the 1960s, challenging the common Jewish American approach of restraint.

Simultaneously, American Jewish organizations focused their attention on Europe in order to give humanitarian assistance to Jewish communities, as Laura Hobson Faure explains in her essay on France. American Jewry was in a process towards full integration in American society and benefited from the increased empathy after the Shoah. Philanthropy often bridged the gap between different Jewish factions, by cooperating in the United Jewish Appeal and the Joint Distribution Committee for fundraising and distribution. However, ideological and class divisions still permeated in the “Jewish Marshall plan”. After about a decade the organizations realized that they needed to cooperate. This helped build consensus and led to cooperation and centralization, without erasing all characteristics of the original organizations. This transatlantic endeavor reflected the prosperity of American Jews, their efficiency and skills in social programming, which they applied in France and which brought them closer together at home. ← 10 | 11 →

The same process of cooperation is visible in the World Jewish Congress (WJC), which contemporaries and researchers alike have taken as a purely Zionist project ran by Americans, but which in fact embraced a global agenda and promoted the return of Jewish refugees to their home countries, as Zohar Segev argues. By actively supporting the restoration of Jewish communities in the European diaspora, American Jews justified their own choice of remaining in the US, next to the Zionist ideal of resettling in Palestine. American Jewish support for European Jews created a clear role for American Jews that broke the potential monopoly of the state of Israel as the sole guardian of Jewish rights. The status of the WJC was in fact recognized by the UN. Ironically, the efforts of its humanitarian action strengthened American Jewry more than Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe, which had suffered more than the WJC could restore. The transatlantic relation was crucial, but its main effect was strengthening the worldwide unity of the Jewish community.

David Frey and Viktoria Sukovata’s essays elaborate on the dire situation of Jews in Eastern Europe. Frey describes how, less than a decade after the Holocaust, a series of large-scale expropriations and evictions of the heavily Jewish Budapest middle-class in 1951 proved that the human rights provisions in the Hungarian constitution were hard to maintain. These clauses were a result of the peace treaties after World War II, but were violated after the Communist take-over. The American Legation in Budapest and the State Department set up a program to collect evidence of human rights violations in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Frey argues that this legal evidence from hundreds of Hungarians, who were resettled by virtually the same methods as the Nazi’s had used, stirred a debate that was the opposite of a “Holocaust silence” in the early postwar period. Eventually even the highest levels of the Hungarian government entered the debate, claiming that the evicted were class enemies who also threatened the future of the Jews.

On the other side of the Atlantic the US used these stories to show that the postwar oppression in Communist regimes paralleled the Nazi regime. But in America there were also similarities as US officials protested against Hungarian deportations, but could not do anything to prevent them or help the victims. History seemed to repeat itself, except that this time the refugees went to Israel. This explosion of anti-Semitic feelings in Hungary politicized Holocaust memory by establishing a link with global human rights issues.

On a larger geographical level, Viktoria Sukovata explains why the US and the USSR were worlds apart in defining the nature of the Holocaust. America joined the war late, did not fight on its own soil, and suffered relatively few casualties. Its experience of the Holocaust was largely based on the stories of survivors who ← 11 | 12 → immigrated to start new lives. In the American perspective, therefore, the Jews were at the center of the Nazi horrors. The Red Army, on the other hand, liberated its own territory littered with concentration camps; and the war losses were enormous, both in the number of soldiers and in civilians. Moreover, the fate of the Soviet Prisoners of War was almost as gloomy as that of Jews in ghettos, and Slavic civilians who were hiding Jews, shared their fate on discovery.

Soviet reporters were the first to record and expose the atrocities, and initially the shock of the fate of Jews penetrated into mainstream culture. In the course of the 50s and 70s, however, further dissemination was suppressed, because it might hurt the Soviet state. The official view focussed on the victory of the Soviet Army which had conquered the Nazis who would have used the Slavic population as ‘slaves’. Focussing specifically on the Jewish experience would have hurt the ‘international solidarity’ in the Soviet empire. Cold War distrust preserved and strengthened the difference in perspective. Political change, the end of the Cold War, brought the specific Judeo centric and the broad perspective of the Holocaust together.3 These changes show how current pressures shaped the interpretation of the Holocaust. This was also visible in the artistic domain.

Emiliano Perra analyses the Italian debates on “the Americanization of the Holocaust”. He stipulates that the political situation in the country in which miniseries and films are shown, determines whether they are severely criticized for being Americanized. In Cold War Italy the Communist Party was especially wary of the American emphasis on individual stories and emotionalism. The lack of political analysis in the miniseries Holocaust, for instance, might lead to comparisons between the Third Reich and the Soviet model of totalitarianism. Fifteen years later, Schindler’s List, generated very little debate, since the political situation had relaxed. The Italian film Life is Beautiful stimulated heated debate, partly because of its use of comedy, and partly because criticizing the film was a way of attacking the contemporary Italian government. The miniseries Perlasca, on the other hand, emphasized national qualities and appealed to a broad political spectrum; therefore its American features triggered little discussion. In each case the transatlantic political relations were a defining factor on Americanization of the Holocaust in the sense of trivialization.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
Transatlantic relations Jewish organizations Cultural aspects Human rights Genocide information
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 216 pp.

Biographical notes

Hans Krabbendam (Volume editor) Derek Rubin (Volume editor)

Hans Krabbendam is Director of the Catholic Documentation Center in Nijmegen. He served as Assistant Director of the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg, the Netherlands. Derek Rubin taught at the English Department and for the American Studies program at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.


Title: American Responses to the Holocaust
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218 pages