World War II – which ended 75 years ago on September 2, 1945 – was by far the most monumental event of the 20th century. At least 70 million people died during the war, or one person every three seconds.
Wherever one looked – world politics, economics, social change, technological advancement, race relations, or the status of women – the impact of the war was widespread. It, of course, particularly impacted Jews. One-third of the world’s Jewish population was murdered during the war, and it is doubtful whether the state of Israel would ever have been created had there been no need to provide a refuge for the survivors of European Jewry.
World War II also had a bigger impact on American Jewry than any other event since the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Approximately 550,000 Jews served in the American military, while over 35,000 received medals and 8,000 made the supreme sacrifice.
Countless other American Jews planted victory gardens, served as block wardens, volunteered in military hospitals, participated in scrap metal and paper drives, worked in shipyards, and were involved in many other war-related activities.
The war changed the demography of American Jewry, with many Jews discovering the delights of the sun-belt. Southern Florida, for example, became a major center of Jewish population as a result of the war. But the most important effect of the war on America’s Jews was not social or economic, but psychological.
America’s Jews were insecure and fearful during the 1930s. Fear of anti-Semitism was pervasive and, as one historian has noted, it was an era of “shah” in which Jews were encouraged to be as inconspicuous as possible.
The Ramaz School in Manhattan, for example, warned its students during the 1930s that yarmulkes were “indoor” hats and should not be worn outside of school. Advertisements for workers often contained the words “Christians only,” and many apartment buildings and resorts discouraged Jewish applicants.
This mood of anxiety and timidity did not outlive the end of the war. America’s Jews came out of the war with a newfound confidence and willingness to go public with their concerns, seen particularly in their support for a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Partially this confidence was due to the contribution that Jews had made to the American war effort, and the belief that other Americans appreciated this contribution. Public opinion polls noted a sharp decline in anti-Semitism during the latter half of the war and the years immediately following the conflict, and this was reflected in popular culture. Two years after the end of the war, the film “Gentleman’s Agreement” – the most important American movie on anti-Semitism – won the Academy Award for best picture and best director.
The fact that America’s greatest enemy was also the greatest enemy of its Jews resulted in a merging of American and Jewish interests. Thus the Jewish Forward declared on July 4, 1939, two months prior to the outbreak of the war, “[I]n one corner of the world in Europe, Hitler stands with a sword in hand. In the other corner, in America, we stand with our torch of freedom.”
The Holocaust revealed where anti-Semitism and racism could lead, and so it is not surprising that the war was also a watershed in American race relations. Immediately after the war, the military and major league baseball were racially desegregated, and in 1954 the Supreme Court declared the segregation of the races in public schools to be unconstitutional. The vast majority of Americans approved of such changes because they believed racism was partially what they had fought during the war.
If the war resulted in a more favorable view of Jews by gentile Americans, the war also resulted in a more positive view of Jews toward gentiles and toward themselves both as Jews and as Americans. The war dissolved much of the dissonance that Jews might have felt regarding their Jewish and American identities and accelerated their acculturation.
The Yiddish scholar Naomi Prawer Kadar in her book Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917-1950 noted that during the war American Jews felt “a new sense of belonging to America,” and this was “expressed through support and identification with the war effort.”
In her prize-winning Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel (2015), the literary historian Leah Garrett argued that the war enabled American Jews, particularly those serving in the military, to adopt “a generic American identity where they were equal with other non-Jews and were just one of a whole tide of Americans defined first and foremost by their national status.”
Many Jews now saw themselves not as American Jews but as Jewish Americans, with “Jewish” being the adjective and “American” being the more important noun.
The war also undermined American Jewish insularity. Jews who had never ventured beyond the comfortable confines of Jewish neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx now found themselves at boot camps in the South and West undergoing military training with other Americans. Neil Simon wrote about one of these soldiers training in Mississippi in his play “Biloxi Blues.”
For many American Jews, the war was the first time they had come into close contact with gentiles, and, conversely, it was the first time that gentiles had come into close contact with Jews. “Serving in the military,” one observer commented, “integrated American Jews into white American society in ways that were unimaginable just five years earlier.”
This integration was strongly encouraged by Washington and the military because, they emphasized, ethnic, racial, and religious bigotry threatened the unity essential for military victory. A host of public and private organizations, with names such as The Common Council for American Unity, The Council for Democracy, The Council Against Intolerance, The League for Fair Play, Friends of Democracy, and The Committee for National Morale, worked toward this end.
This included disseminating wartime posters stressing the contributions of all Americans to the war effort, including, in particular, those of women and blacks. Hollywood did its part by producing “platoon” films such as “Air Force,” “Bataan,” “A Walk in the Sun,” and “Sands of Iwo Jima,” which emphasized the heterogeneity of the American population and the role that all played in achieving victory.
These platoon films featured military units comprised of southern whites, Jews from Brooklyn, Italians from New Jersey, Irish from New England, Middle Western farmers, and the like, all cooperating and doing their part.
America’s Jews exulted in the country’s victory. The Conservative rabbi Arthur Hertzberg later wrote in his autobiography, A Jew in America, about the impact that victory had on him and other American Jews in 1945. “They took pride not only in the tens of thousands of their young who had served with valor as ordinary soldiers, but especially in the strikingly large numbers of Jewish scientists and managers among those who had produced the munitions that made victory possible,” he wrote.
“We wanted to be thought of as part of the brave, undaunted, victorious America. We were saying Kaddish as Jews, and we were glad for the condolences from the rest of America, but we wanted our neighbors to think of us as wrapped, together with them, in an American flag, preferably with the slogan Don’t Tread on Me written over it…. I was carried along by the great wave that was lifting American Jews into passionate and proud activism and muffling their sense of shame.”
Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of the conservative monthly magazine Commentary, did not share Hertzberg’s liberal politics, but he did agree with him regarding the impact of the war. Podhoretz, who was born in 1930, remarked in his 2009 book Why Are Jews Liberals? that World War II “made [him] into a fervent American patriot.”
Henry Kissinger, who had fled to America with his family in 1938 when he was 15, served in the Army during the war, and later noted that his service had made him into a real American. For Jews, the historian Jonathan D. Sarna has written, participating in the war against Nazism was “the ultimate synthesis of patriotic allegiance and religious duty.”
Leah Garrett has argued, correctly in my opinion, that Jews “created the template through which Americans saw World War II.” Jews wrote the single most popular World War II novel for each of the American military services: The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (Army, 1948), Battle Cry by Leon Uris (Marines, 1953), Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Air Force, 1961), and The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (Navy, 1951), which sold more copies than any other American novel since Gone With the Wind (1936).
It was on the New York Times best-seller list for a year, was a selection of four book clubs, and was serialized in 45 newspapers. It was made into a popular movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Van Johnson, and Fred MacMurray, as well as into a play, which ran for 415 performances on Broadway.
Jews also had a predominant role in American music during the war. Jews wrote the three most important classical musical compositions concerning the war. They are Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the most popular American classical work of the mid-20th century; Morton Gould’s “American Salute”; and Marc Blitzstein’s “Airborne Symphony.”
Of Leonard Bernstein’s three symphonies, two concern the Holocaust. The first of these, the “Jeremiah” symphony, was initially performed in Pittsburgh in January, 1944, at a time when the agony of European Jewry had become widely known.
American Jews also wrote many of the most popular songs of the war. Frank Loesser composed “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” the first post-Pearl Harbor war song and a runaway best-seller, selling 2.5 million records and 750 copies of sheet music. Other popular songs written during the war by American Jews include:
“The Last Time I Saw Paris” (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), “There’ll Be Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover” (Walter Kent and Nat Burton), “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)” (Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus, and Eddie Seiler), “Long Ago and Far Away” (Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin), “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” (Jules Styne and Sammy Cahn), “I’ll Walk Alone” (Styne and Cahn), and “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” (Frank Loesser and Arthur Schwartz).
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” expressed the wartime nostalgic longing for home of soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and has sold more single copies than any song in history.
The two most popular musicals of the 1940s – “Oklahoma” (1943) and “South Pacific” (1949) – were composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (Hammerstein’s father was Jewish but his mother was a gentile and raised her son as an Episcopalian; he belonged to a predominately Jewish fraternity while a student at Columbia University), and they spoke directly to the wartime experience.
“Oklahoma,” the most patriotic of major American musicals, pays tribute to the goodness of the American heartland of farmers and ranchers. Here, “all the sounds of the earth are like music,” there is “plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope,” “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” and “we know we belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand.”
A snake, however, exists within this idyllic paradise in the character of Judd Fry, a gloomy, menacing, primitive, and violent figure who symbolizes the fascist threat. Ultimately, he is killed by Curly McLain, the male lead, just as the fascist threat in Europe and Asia will be destroyed by the allied armies and navies.
“South Pacific” is set in an island on which the American Navy has established a base, and its major theme is the difficult challenge of overcoming the racial animus which the sailors and nurses have brought with them from America. Racial prejudice, we are told, is not innate but has to be “carefully taught.” The musical ends with the female lead, Nellie Forbush of Little Rock, Arkansas, accepting the native children of her future husband.
One month after the surrender of Japan, an event occurred in Atlantic City that seemed to encapsulate the American Jewish experience of World War II. Bess Myerson, a Yiddish-speaking beauty from the Bronx, was chosen as the first and, to this date, the only Jewish Miss America.
Her selection thrilled America’s Jews and showed that things had truly changed for the better. Jews in the displaced persons camps in Europe were particularly amazed by the news of Myerson. Certainly, they concluded, America must be a magical place, a land of opportunity and freedom where even a Jew could become the model of femininity.
It is hardly surprising that most DPs sought to resettle not in Palestine but in America. By and large, they were not disappointed in their choice. If not the Promised Land, at least America proved to be a land of promise.