Photo Credit: Courtesy Yad Vashem
Babi Yar, Ukraine, The site of a mass murder of Jews, September 1941

*Editor’s Note: This is part XVII in a series. You can read Part XVI, here  

On November 16, 1941, the JTA, Der Tog, and Forward reported that it received information from an unimpeachable source that “fifty-two thousand Jews, including men, woman, and children were systematically and methodically put to death in Kiev following the Nazi occupation of the Ukrainian capital….” Later dispatches stated this is an estimated number of those killed. The Jewish press emphasized “the details available …establish that the victims did not lose their lives as a result of a mob pogrom, but by systematic, merciless execution carried out in accordance with the cold-blooded Nazi policy of Jewish extermination. Similar measures, though on a smaller scale, have been taken in other conquered towns.” 

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On December 31, 1941, the Jewish press described how thousands of Jewish women in Kiev were ordered to move into mined cemetery grounds. Those who were not blown up were machine-gunned to death by German soldiers. 

In the middle of December, the Nazi military issued an order asking those remaining in Kiev to report to the occupation forces. Sensing this meant a new Jewish massacre, many Jewish mothers killed their children, and then committed suicide, while many elderly Jews jumped from open windows. Their bodies remained untouched on the sidewalks. Such pathetic scenes drove many Jews insane, and they could be seen running wild through the streets. 

Similar reports were received from other cities heavily populated with Jews in Nazi-occupied Ukraine the JTA Der Tog and Forward reported. In all these cities and townships, Jews were compelled en masse to report to certain designated areas and then deported without ever being heard from again.  

News from additional areas reported massacres of at least 500 Jews in Jassy, Romania at the end of June, according to the Forward, The New York Times, Congress Weekly and JTA. The JTA reported the execution of 6,00 Polish Jews in September at labor camps near Zaręby Kościelne, a village in Ostrów Mazowiecka County. The JTA provided ongoing reports about the shooting of hundreds of Jews in Luxemburg, Yugoslavia, France, Poland throughout November and December 1941. The JTA and the Jewish Frontier reported about the high mortality rate of more than 2,000 Jews a month in the Warsaw Ghetto. The New York Times and the JTA. Reported on the increase of Jewish suicides.  

American Jewish Response to the Massacres 

Although some of the information about the Nazi invasion of Russia seemed at time times conflicting, American Jews, the Contemporary Jewish Record opined, clearly understood the “extent of carnage and massacre … was unprecedented even in Nazi annals.” While they believed the Nazis planned to eliminate the Jewish communities under their rule, it was presumed mass murder would be used when “dispatch rather than greed was the prime consideration.”  

The Congress Weekly noted that “It was if American Jews were unwilling or psychologically incapable of recognizing these massacres constituted a new approach in solving the Jewish problem. They did not heed the admonition of Georg Bernhard, the respected German Jewish financial columnist, newspaper editor, and director of the Ullstein publishing house in Berlin, one of the largest and most prestigious publishing companies of Germany, who warned that the German radio had recently “stated a fact of which the world should have been long aware, but still refuses to believe that is Adolf Hitler’s intention to exterminate the whole of European Jewry.”   

Bernhard did not know how this objective would be accomplished but warned this “regime of bloodthirst brutes” were capable of implementing Hitler’s “every notion, no matter how insanely vile, into execution.” Who can promise, he asked, that the Germans would not repeat their mass slaughter “with a mass target composed of all the Jews of Europe in concentrated in the Polish ghetto camps?” 

The Congress Weekly said American Jewry responded to this dire warning and to the constant stream of widely publicized massacres by acknowledging several hundred thousand Jews would perish, but the Jewish people would survive. Throughout the years of persecution, the Jewish people had survived pogroms, abuse, and expulsions because they knew once the bloodletting ceased, they could return to their daily activities. Historically this had been Jew’s experience, which American Jews drew on in dealing with is crisis. This time, the Nazis played by different rules and few people or governments could assimilate the notion of genocide in the middle of the 20th century. After all, they asked, how could Hitler destroy an entire people scattered throughout so many countries. 

Norman Bentwich, the former attorney-general of Mandatory Palestine (1920-1931), and a contributing editor to The National Jewish Monthly published by B’nai B’rith, observed that although aware of the executions, American Jewry had “not yet faced up sufficiently” to their responsibilities. Samuel Margoshes, the editor of Der Tog, agreed American Jewry had remained spectators to the “gruesome spectacle in Europe,” but did not know why. Perhaps the magnitude of the suffering had made it seem unreal to them or American Jews had become callous to the massacres, which did not allow the agony to make an impression on them. Possibly they suffered from a “peculiar kind of Jewish isolationism or they simply lacked the imagination to place themselves in the position of others who suffer.” Whatever the reason, Margoshes felt greatly disturbed that these events had “failed to unite the Jews of the US in a great effort to save the Jewish people from extinction.” 

In December 1941, the Workman’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) attributed this lack of response to American Jews’s acceptance of these atrocities as part of “living in the year 1941.” They had grown accustomed to reading about the murders in newspapers and hearing about it on the radio. Their imaginations became blunted, and it became an accepted part of their life. 

In the Congress Weekly, Jacob Lestschinsky, an economist, sociologist, demographer and founding member of the YIVO Institute in Vilna, Poland, believed there were two reasons for this response. American Jewry had become “afflicted with apathy and resignation” due to the nature of this tremendous catastrophe. Communal life began to “revolve almost exclusively around the problems of [providing] immediate relief to the sufferers. But apathy and despondency, and lack of political activity in turn[had] an adverse effect on money-raising, even for relief.” Furthermore, American Jews became greatly disheartened because the leadership of the democratic world was silent about the plight of the Jews. 

An editorial in the Congress Weekly, the American Jewish Congress voiced its outrage that no voice had been raised by either by the US or the British Government expressing the “horror of free humanity at this cold-bloodied extermination of a people.” After all, these massacres were published in the Jewish press and confirmed by the general press in England and America. The Congress speculated that the fear of adding fuel to the isolationist propaganda that Jews were responsible for the war might have explained such silence. The could be no justification for this behavior the Congress declared, even if nobly motivated.  

In a speech to the Inter-American Jewish Conference on November 23, 1941, Nahum Goldmann, Chairman of the Administrative Committee of the World Jewish Congress, expressed the sense of impotence felt by many Jews of being unable to affect any immediate change. The speech also reflected the inability of American Jews to assimilate the true nature of Hitler’s war against the Jews. Goldmann maintained the problem of European Jewry remained more of a relief problem, rather than a political one. Political intervention had no value, he said, since most of the governments were “practically puppet dependencies of Germany.” Keeping the American public well-informed about the unparalleled German crimes is the only available option the Jews had and obtaining a firm commitment from the Western democracies these atrocities will not be forgotten at the end of the war. In other words, the problem would be dealt with in the future once Hitler had been defeated.  

Memorial at Babi Yar
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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.