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Farewell to David Wyman, the Great Historian of American Silence in the Face of the Holocaust

The author of The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust passed away earlier this month at 89.

Pierre Sauvage
March 19, 2018
(Creative Commons)The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust
The train tracks to Auschwitz(Creative Commons)(Creative Commons)The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust
(Creative Commons)The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust
The train tracks to Auschwitz(Creative Commons)(Creative Commons)The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust

The great ground-breaking historian David S. Wyman died on March 14, at the age of 89. He is best-known as the author of the landmark study, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust. A number of years ago, I wrote a tribute to David, which he had been kind enough to review and approve. I have now updated and expanded it slightly, and pass it on with deep sadness at the loss this remarkable man.

“Don’t forget to knock the cowshit off your boots” was advice David Wyman long treasured from a fellow volunteer fireman in rural New Hampshire when Wyman was accepted into Harvard, at 32, for graduate studies. Uncertain, he asked a mentor to administer an I.Q. test to make sure he could really handle the school.

Having taught sixth grade and high school, with two young children to support, he had wanted to go on to become a teacher at a small college somewhere—certainly not a scholar (he didn’t consider himself an intellectual). After toying with the idea of doing something on China, he finally settled comfortably on a narrowly focused subject for his Ph. D. thesis.

Perhaps somebody else went on to study the Progressive Era in (conservative) New Hampshire or perhaps the subject is still up for grabs. In any event, as Wyman smilingly remembered the moment, “Walking down the street in Cambridge, here I am finally having gotten the thesis pinned down—and out of nowhere comes this question: What did the United States do while the Jews were being persecuted and mass-murdered.”

Wyman would say that he could not figure out where the idea came from. What he remembered vividly is that he decided then and there that this is what he had to do. (He also ended up at the large, publish-or-perish University of Massachusetts at Amherst.)

Much has been made of the fact that David is the grandson of two clergymen, but he insisted that he was not raised in an “unusually” religious home. In seventh grade he got kicked out of Sunday school for throwing spitballs; according to his parents’ ground-rules, that meant that he had to attend church on Sundays. But as with all righteously-inclined people I have come to know something about, Wyman had important role models as he grew up.

His mother had been actively involved in social-justice issues, and had helped break the color bar at their Methodist church. His father would relentlessly say “Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes.” “It’s the gift from my parents that I feel best about,” he recalled. “We were taught not just tolerance, but a high degree of respect for all different people.” Sadly, neither his parents nor his brother lived to see the success David achieved seeking to live up to those standards.

Wyman’s childhood was during the Depression and the virulently antisemitic years of the late 1930s. His father had found a job as a milkman, whose route brought him through a Jewish community; Wyman remembered that his father had only positive things to say about the people along the milk route.

A rabbi once introduced Wyman as “impeccably non-Jewish.” Though in general he was not sympathetic to this kind of thinking, Wyman had come to feel that perhaps this sensitive topic indeed needed a non-Jew. At least, it could not be said that it was the Jews complaining again.

Having built his own home (“probably the most creative time in my life—nothing has matched it, not even the writing”), he bought and sparingly remodeled a chicken coop to serve as an isolated study way out in the back, on the edge of the woods. There for some time he would literally burn the midnight oil (the best hours were midnight to three a.m., and initially there was no electricity) as he attempted to come to grips with his topic.

Having decided to break down his subject chronologically, Wyman initially published Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 in 1968. As he had expected, there wasn’t much of a reaction; two thousand copies were sold. The Holocaust hadn’t yet been let in to the American public consciousness, and there could hardly have been much interest in America’s role in it.

The former chicken coop got a phone line, however, after the 1984 publication of The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman hadn’t anticipated the impact that the book would have upon its release, and the countless speeches he would be called upon to make.

Nevertheless, what continues to strike me about the book is that despite its best-seller status and a readily available paperback edition, the book has still not fully sunk in. Whatever the lip service given by past U.S. presidents on down, obfuscation still clouds America’s vision of itself during those challenging times.

Honest and eloquent, Wyman’s study of the partial responsibility of the United States for the Holocaust thus retains all its potency for each new reader. For my part, I stand by what I wrote to David when the book came out: “Your tone, your crystalline moral framework, strike me as almost unbelievably right.” For those of us who had the privilege of his friendship, it is hard not to hear that bronze voice, not to feel that tall, sturdy presence, whenever we reread him.

Wyman placed much of the blame for American inaction then on the Roosevelt Administration. Ten years later, Martin Ostrow’s masterful 1994 PBS documentary America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference, in which Wyman and his work played a large role, brought out nasty attacks from misguided (or self-interested) Roosevelt “keepers of the flame,” along with some absurd speculation that rescue, or the possibility of rescue, was a “myth.” (I happen to be a living witness to rescue’s efficaciousness.)

“I am considering getting entirely away from the Holocaust,” Wyman had written to me a year before publishing Abandonment. “It has involved too many years of depressing findings. Furthermore, the nasty fighting among ‘scholars,’ and others over the political implications of the findings is beginning to disgust me.” The challenges soon began to include preposterous assertions that the West—and the Roosevelt administration—did all they could for the Jews of Europe.

But surely, the most challenging question to Wyman was whether a failure of leadership was not primarily a failure of those being led. “In theory, yes,” Wyman agreed. Indeed, he had concluded his earlier Paper Walls with a stinging judgment: the ungenerous American refugee policy then had been “essentially what the American people wanted.” In covering the years of the Holocaust, however, Abandonment stressed the failure of leadership.

Wyman underscored the wartime polls that indicated that while more than one third of the American population was at least sympathetic to the notion of some sort of a domestic anti-Jewish campaign—and another third, typically, had ostensibly no opinion—the final third was ready to openly express its readiness to help the Jews if they were to become the objects of such an American campaign.

On one occasion, being filmed for my upcoming 2020 documentaryAnd Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry and the Refugee Crisis, 1940-1941, Wyman turned to a file cabinet, and quickly located what he thought was a blisteringly relevant letter, written by a woman in Oakalla, Texas, in January 1944 to her senator: “I have never liked the Jews. I have never pretended to like them, and German propaganda has played no part in the low opinion I have of them. But at no time has my thinking been so low that I have wished them any harm. I have never wished them exterminated. The treatment they are receiving makes me want to help them because they need help. If we can do anything to help the European Jews escape the wrath of Hitler then we should do it because they have a right to live. It is not God’s will that they be slaughtered.”

Surely, Wyman resumed, with some emotion, this is proof of the reservoir of relative goodwill that Roosevelt could have drawn upon had he been inspired to do so: if a person from that background could understand what was at stake, surely a significant part of the American public could have been won over to understanding it.

Pressed further, Wyman responded with the earnestness that made his voice so distinctive and so compelling. “I still believe that the American people wouldn’t have failed on this if they had been given information and leadership. Maybe I have to believe it for my own inner peace.”

It still amazes me that Wyman, as a young scholar venturing into then nearly virgin scholarly territory, actually connected with the great American rescuer Varian Fry, the first American to be honored, posthumously, as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This happened not long before Fry’s death in 1967, at a time when there was so little interest in Fry’s story (or in America’s role in the Holocaust) that Fry had grown used to keeping it to himself. When Wyman wrote to Fry seeking his help, Fry wrote back that “The subject of your doctoral dissertation interests me very much indeed.” Together, they later pored over the contents of some cartons of papers Fry brought down from his attic.

Years later, among the letters that came in after Wyman’s crucial 1978 Commentary article on Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed was one from a then staff producer for then public television station KCET in Los Angeles; I wrote to Wyman about the possibility of doing a documentary on the subject. David never held it against me that I moved on instead to chronicle the singular rescue effort that took place in and around Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, where I myself had been born and sheltered. His appreciation for Weapons of the Spirit (soon to be re-released in a remastered new edition) meant a lot to me.

Always vulnerable to optimism, Wyman’s 1998 afterword to the paperback edition of The Abandonment of the Jews took some comfort in the fact that “a commitment to take action when confronted with outbreaks of massive persecution has been affirmed at the highest levels of American civic responsibility”: “The responsibility to act has been recognized,” he asserted. But Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winnning 2002 steamroller of a book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, made it difficult to share much optimism about the extent of the lessons that have truly been learned from the 20th century. Wyman himself readily noted the increasing cynicism of our times.

When it comes specifically to the American Jewish community, there has not yet been any real acknowledgement of the “break in solidarity” that literary critic Alfred Kazin had publicly lamented in 1944 while the Holocaust raged. The Jews who played such a large role in the success of The Abandonment of the Jews didn’t come to the party when the issue of the American Jewish response was central to David Wyman’s subsequent work. How else to explain that Wyman and Rafael Medoff’s blistering A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust met with such sparse and tongue-tied approval? (My own documentary Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, awaits release.) Medoff also founded the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies to focus on America and the Holocaust.

Of course, there have been other important books pertaining to the American response to the Holocaust, and hopefully there will be many more. Maybe one day, the novelists, the dramatists, and even the moviemakers will add their necessary insights and speculations. Abandonment of the Jews continues to have its work cut out for it.

Filmmakers sometimes take special delight in touches that audiences will miss. During one of the interviews I filmed with David for the Fry documentary, an old sled happened to be in the background. For me, it will always evoke Rosebud…

Pierre Sauvage is a documentary filmmaker with a special interest in rescue during the Holocaust, as well as in bystander complicity in the crime. His film about the haven of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, Weapons of the Spirit, will soon be re-released in a newly remastered edition.