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Six Thousand Miles And Nine Pairs Of Shoes Later: An Interview with Professor William Helmreich

William Helmreich

William Helmreich

Any chance they will one day see a wider audience?

It’s interesting you mention that because the fellow I was talking to told me that if I put the interviews together in the form of a pamphlet, it would probably be widely distributed in the yeshiva world. So when all this dies down – this book is only out four weeks and is already going into a second printing – I’m going to turn my attention to that because I really feel these interviews should find a wider audience especially because there’s so much revisionism that goes on in the Orthodox community.

For example, in the second chapter of The World of the Yeshiva, I write about the attempt to start a college in the mid-40s. I got hold of documents from the Board of Ed from New York State that indicated that Chaim Berlin and Torah Vodaath – Rabbi Hutner and Rabbi Mendelowitz – wanted to start a college to counter Yeshiva University’s influence on their community. They got together a charter and spent $150,000 on it and a year later in 1946 they got approval for this college – called the American Hebrew Theological University.

I have a lot of information about this that I did not put in the book. I probably want to attach that as an addendum. There’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t put in the book. When it was published, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who was the head of Agudah for a long time, said to me, “We thank you for what you wrote; we thank you even more for what you didn’t write.”

In addition to writing the first in-depth work on American yeshivot, you also wrote Against All Odds, the first sociological study of Holocaust survivors in America. The book’s subject matter is arguably very important due to the common phenomenon today of people blaming their past for their problems in life. If there ever was a population, though, that could have justifiably complained or blamed circumstances for not being able to function, Holocaust survivors would be it. But, as you write, they largely didn’t. They bit their lips and rebuilt their lives.

Well, I think we don’t always have a lot of control over what happens to us but we do have control over how we deal with it. A lot of the survivors were damaged. My statistical study based on a random sample of survivors indicates that 15,000 of the 140,000 survivors who came here were seriously damaged. Now that’s not small potatoes, but it’s also important to understand that 125,000 managed to go on with their lives.

It has to do with a fundamental attitude. I think today, as our society has grown more comfortable materially, we don’t make the same demands nor do we have the same expectations of people that we had then. The truth of the matter is we have so much therapy available that it’s almost like we have too much therapy. It’s almost like we’re always trying to find an excuse for somebody who does something wrong rather than hold him accountable for it.

And there’s a natural tendency if you have a choice between being made to pay for what you did wrong and not having to pay, you would rather not. And if you’re given the opportunity to blame other forces, you will.

Survivors didn’t have that kind of opportunity…. And it’s also not clear that talking about your suffering really clears your head. People say, “Oh, you’re just repressing.” Well, maybe it’s better to repress. You go through your whole life, you repress, you don’t think about it too much, you die, and you’ve lived a relatively satisfying life. Or, you wallow in self-pity and you can’t go on. I think today people are much more self-indulgent.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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