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How the Ghosts of the Holocaust Haunted the 1960s, But Quietly

The evolution of Jewish American political discourse from outsider counter-culture to ‘never again a victim’

Atina Grossmann
September 18, 2014
In Montgomery, Alabama, a march to campaign for proper registration of black voters, March 23, 1965. From left: Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.(Popperfoto/Getty Images)
In Montgomery, Alabama, a march to campaign for proper registration of black voters, March 23, 1965. From left: Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.(Popperfoto/Getty Images)

In so many ways, it seems that the Holocaust is much closer to us, in memory and consciousness, now, so many decades later, than it was then when our parents carried its fresh scars and their children, who came of age in the 1960s, were all about changing the world, heedless of their anxious memories and associations. I come to the topic as an American, a Jew, a child of German-Jewish refugees, and a quite young participant in the civil rights movement, the New Left, and then, probably most comfortably, the feminist movement that emerged out of the first two. As a historian of modern Germany, the Shoah, and its aftermath, I come also with an abiding curiosity about all the ways in which the “shadow of the Holocaust” was for the very most part indeed shadowy, a barely articulated or acknowledged presence for activists, even for Jews, even for the children of the refugees and survivors, in the ’60s. This disconnect from relatively recent events seems both hard to understand and completely in keeping with the spirit of what were radically forward-looking times.

It is important to remember also that the ’50s had been haunted much more deeply by the “bomb” (and by McCarthyism, a particular trauma for many refugees from fascism) than by the Holocaust. As New York City schoolchildren, we found our war memorials in exhibits about the horrors of the bomb, which introduced the obligatory but also fascinating tours of the gleaming new United Nations building on the banks of the East River. The consequences of nuclear warfare appeared incontrovertibly more immediately dangerous and requiring of action than a death camp set up by a thoroughly defeated regime that no longer posed an existential threat. And this despite the fact that both my grandmothers had been murdered in Auschwitz, and their ghosts, as well as the entire refugee experience, surely inhabited our small apartment on the Upper West Side.

None of which is to say of course that the Holocaust was absent. In the United States as well as in Germany, references to Fascism, Hitler, the Gestapo, punctuated the rhetoric of ’60s radicals. But—and this is, I think, absolutely key—the historical referents were quite different: “Never Again” in the ’60s meant “Never again a good German,” never again a faceless Arendt-ian cog in a bureaucratic wheel of oppression, murder, and genocide, never again a perpetrator, and never again an apathetic bystander to, and facilitator for, an unjust regime engaged in racial persecution and aggressive wars. For ’60s activists, the injunction “never again” relied on images of, and assumptions about, ordinary Germans tolerating the crimes of the Third Reich. Even today, a quick search of general histories of the ’60s reveals that many, if not most, do not have the word Jews in their index, although the texts are crisscrossed by Jewish names. But looking back now, it seems clear that “Never again a good German” may have provoked different associations or differing levels of intensity of association in Jewish and non-Jewish activists. As Bob Ross recalled about his student days at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he had originally joined the picket line boycotting a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter because “It was the Jewish thing. If you’re silent, you’re complicit.”

Key to any understanding of the American ’60s is the central place of the Civil Rights Movement and the inspiration derived from the black struggle for justice and equality in the South. This also meant a central space for various expressions of Christianity, particularly the liberal social gospel tradition of American Protestantism, influenced by the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that preached the active involvement of religion in the world, “beyond cheap grace,” as well as Catholic liberation theology and Catholic Worker communities, Quaker consensus, Buddhism, and Ghandism combined with Old Testament themes of justice, expressed especially in Exodus and the prophets. All these Christian commitments folded into, and intertwined with, the traditions of the black churches.

It was African American spirituals and sermons that gave voice to the struggle. It was in black churches that the civil rights movement found sanctuary. It was the liberal Protestant American Council of Churches or the Christian Ys that helped fund the movement, and it was clergymen like Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King or militants raised in the black church who provided both the leadership and the shock troops of the movement. When the civil rights workers were attacked (viewing the documentaries aired about the Freedom Riders on their 50th Anniversary, one is shocked once again by the vicious brutality of that struggle and the courage of those who participated) the same epithets were hurled at all of them: “nigger lover, white nigger, Commie, Jew.” Jews—and Blacks as well—did sense the special connection woven by a (somewhat invented) shared tradition of slavery, and the unmistakably Jewish names of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman are forever enshrined, together with their young black “brother” James Cheney, in the martyrology of the movement. But it was in the Christian churches, in the “beloved community” invoked by King and other preachers and activists, that the mourning was done.

Liberal and left-wing American Jews were—for good reason—deeply attached to secularism and found protection in the constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state. But they were well aware that the civil rights movement (unlike the Communist Party, which, together with the black churches, was its midwife) was not secular. The deeply Christian nature of the movement was something that Jews in the movement simply accepted; historian James J. Farrell is not the only historian to suggest that “Sixties radicalism was substantially spiritual.” Michael Staub points out in his singular and extremely useful volume The Jewish 1960s: An American Sourcebook, “the difficult place of Jews both as insiders and outsiders to this southern (and typically Christian) struggle for African American civil rights.” For Jews involved in the movement, the intimacies and contradictions of the black-Jewish alliance were, therefore, always front and center. At the same time, however, the spiritual nature of the movement also opened the way for deep involvement by American rabbis; two of the most notable were refugees with their own recent Holocaust shadows.

Joachim Prinz, born in Upper Silesia, trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, a former Jewish chaplain at the Berlin University and rabbi in Nazi Berlin, who emigrated to the United States in 1937, helped plan the 1963 March on Washington and spoke immediately before Martin Luther King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” address. As Prinz writes in his memoir (edited by Michael A. Meyer), on a lecture tour in Atlanta in 1937, Prinz, apparently quite naïve about the American race situation, invited Dr. Willis Jefferson King, a Methodist Bishop and a professor of Old Testament at Gammon Theological Seminary, to dinner at his hotel. King tactfully suggested that they dine privately in Prinz’s room, but even so, members of the local southern Jewish community were outraged, leaving the German-Jewish refugee rabbi with the impression, “Altogether, the American Jews were a great disappointment to me.” (Prinz met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of the American Jewish Congress in 1959.) Years later, on Aug. 28, 1963, which he recalled as the “greatest religious experience of my life,” Prinz began by saying, “I speak to you as an American Jew” but then moved quickly to reference his background: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in Warsaw—trained at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums and the University of Berlin, whose family was decimated in the Holocaust—is inscribed into the history of the civil rights movement as the man with the long white Old Testament beard who marched with King on the frontline in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Heschel was preoccupied with questions of race in America, memorably writing in 1966: “In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Speaking directly to much of the often newly comfortable Jewish middle class in both the South and North, he insisted, “We must act even when inclination and vested interests would militate against equality. Human self-interest is often our Nemesis! It is the audacity of faith that redeems us.”

As young Jews in the ’60s we were proud of those rabbis; they eased our identification with Judaism in a time of political and cultural turmoil. I still remember my excitement when Bernhard Cohn, the “American” son-in-law of the old Rabbi Hugo Hahn, who still gave his sermons in German at Congregation Habonim on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, joined the demonstrations in Selma. Jewish refugees from Nazism had multiple important roles in the civil rights movement, as individual activists, as philosophical inspirations, and, not to be forgotten, as professors in historically black colleges where they were welcomed when the Ivy League was still tightly closed. And if most of the southern Jews the civil rights activists encountered were wary of the movement, suspicious of the outside agitators, and content with treating their black help well, there were also others, like the German Jewish refugee scholar whom Michael Walzer recalls meeting while sitting at a lunch counter in Durham, N.C., who was teaching philosophy to “Negro” students at North Carolina College. Those outsiders with their strange names and accents are also part of the story.


Another critical and often neglected factor to consider in any discussion of Jews in the American ’60s is that for many young people the movement, with its All-American (and yes, therefore also Christian) embrace of difference and the “other,” became ironically the path to Americanization. This was certainly the case among the “red diaper babies,” the offspring of Communist Party members, alienated from the American mainstream by their parents’ political activities (and often persecution, including imprisonment), raised within their own enclaves of progressive schools, summer camps, and bungalow encampments, in the tight-knit and anxious community of the American Communist party.

While this world had been essentially politically dead since 1956, it was still very much alive socially and culturally, in specifically Jewish (secular) contexts that included Yiddish after-school shuls and summer camps like Kinderland as well as more mixed havens such as Camp Thoreau, which maintained the civil religion, if not the party politics, of the CP and where black and Jewish “red diaper babies” together sang songs of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the partisans with Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. This process of Americanization via the movement worked also I think for numerous (certainly not all) children of refugees and survivors (although for a host of reasons, children of survivors were, I would venture to say, less likely to engage in truly rebellious behavior), estranged in their own way from a perceived American mainstream, raised in distinct and often insular milieus. It was through singing “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome,” the anthems of Woody Guthrie and the “negro spirituals” adapted into “freedom songs,” by Pete Seeger, through the Anglo-Irish folk music of the Weavers; Phil Ochs; Peter, Paul and Mary; Harry Belafonte, and Joan Baez, as well as the subversive pleasures of the counter-culture—sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—that those who felt themselves outsiders in “white bread” American culture found inclusion and a profound sense of belonging in the America they found at once so enticing and so objectionable.

I can remember this paradoxical process in my own life, the palpable sense of relief when my strange parents with their accents, their cosmopolitan allures, their skeptical attitude toward everything too amerikanisch suddenly (it seemed) became exotic, even appealing, rather than just weird and embarrassing. This assimilation through protest was an experience shared, I think, by the children of refugees from Nazi Germany as well as the “red diaper” babies whose families had emigrated from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. It also captured, of course, a third group, those young Jews who mistrusted the assimilation or acculturation, the good jobs, the kitschy houses, the promise of Ivy League college admissions just recently precariously achieved by their parents in the suburbs, their souls lost to nose jobs and stifling, soulless ritual. If young critical Jews elsewhere—Tony Judt in England, the second generation in Germany—felt the need to express their difference by going to Israel and working on kibbutzim, rebellious American Jewish youth found that the civil rights movement and the New Left were ways to feel at home in America and to own a more organic citizenship.

Whether in almost entirely Jewish communities in Brooklyn or the Bronx, populated by DPs and survivors or in the overwhelmingly white middle-class suburbs, American Jews in the ’60s were just beginning to enjoy the benefits of postwar meritocracy and affluence, a taste of the world of elite educational institutions, corporations, and law firms opening up—just as their youth began to understand the limits and, in many ways, the emptiness of that American dream. In some ways, then, the movement also responded to a crisis in American Jewish identity; as Jews became increasingly comfortable and affluent in the United States, their children looked for alternative ways to assert—or adjust to—their “difference” beyond the religious and found that protest and resistance, which carried their own American traditions, could offer routes to less alienated and shallow forms of assimilation and acculturation.

In this dynamic context and as the movement grew, inchoate images of Nazis were readily available for all sides. At the Chicago convention of 1968, the demonstrators taunted the police with “Heil Hitler,” Sen. Abe Ribicoff denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of the police, and Mayor Daley yelled at the demonstrators (words the TV did not pick up but that were later decoded as) “Fuck you Jew, son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker go home.” The Jewish voice was clearly prominent in some of the great American political dramas, from the protagonists in the 1953 Rosenberg Trial—a vivid memory for the many “red diaper” babies, some of them the children of East European Jewish Communists—or the Chicago Conspiracy Trial with its epic confrontations between Abbie Hoffman and Judge Julius Hoffman. Abbie liked to refer to Judge Hoffman as Hitler for his treatment of the lone black defendant, Bobby Seale, which was as he resonantly proclaimed, a Shande far di Goyim. It did not escape notice that both defense attorneys, themselves radicals, were also Jewish (and the prosecutor was not).

Many ’60s activists were Jews. Many, however, it is equally important to remember, were not. Brandeis, the Jewish university where Angela Davis was Herbert Marcuse’s student, was as radical as Berkeley and Madison. But it would be midwesterners (like Tom and Casey Hayden), distant from the Old Left (and secular Jewish) sectarianism of New York, who inaugurated SDS. They came with quite different memory households. In one classic story about an encounter between the Old and New Left in which the New Left was propagating the virtues of nonviolent resistance, Irving Howe tried to push Tom Hayden up against the wall by demanding, “Could you love a fascist?” Hayden resolutely responded “yes” whereupon Howe, “aghast” (and himself only 42 at the time), declared that “he couldn’t love Hitler” and thereby the split between European-influenced Old Left socialists and a New Left, both more “American” and more “black” influenced, was sealed.


1965, the year that Lyndon Johnson ordered the escalation of the war in Southeast Asia with a bombing campaign and massive build-up of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam, marked a key transition between the civil rights movement and New Left, shifting the focus of debate and activism and accentuating the significance of Holocaust shadows. Was Vietnam the domino that had to be propped up in order to avoid another appeasement catastrophe, or was the American campaign against Communism a war crime that needed to be resisted at all costs and even at personal risk? Within the Jewish community, the acrimonious debate over the war was often couched in terms recruited from interpretations of World War II and the Holocaust. In 1970, Rabbi Balfour Brickner pointedly asked, “How would we as a nation fare were we to be judged by the Nuremberg principles we imposed on the Germans in 1945?”

The Eichmann Trial at the beginning of the decade had worked to underscore the mortal dangers of apathy and bureaucracy. At the same time, Bruno Bettelheim’s depiction of Jews in German concentration camps as helpless, infantilized creatures, identifying with the oppressor, unable to resist or save themselves, was powerfully influential. His distorted portrayal was adopted not only by Stanley Elkins in his highly controversial analysis of slavery but remarkably (and this seems to be a completely forgotten piece of feminist history) also by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. In her explosive 1963 “cri de coeur” she explicitly compared the lot of the 1950s housewife to that of the concentration camp inmate, fundamentally the same if under more comfortable circumstances. “In a sense that is not as far-fetched as it sounds,” she wrote, the women who “adjust” as housewives, who grow up wanting to be “just a housewife” are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their death in the concentration camps—and the millions more (this is perhaps more relevant) who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed. She does finally acknowledge the limits of the “comfortable concentration camp” analogy: “The suburban house is not a German concentration camp nor are American housewives on their way to the gas chamber.” “But” she avers, “they are in a trap,” and she turns to the tale, admiringly related by Bettelheim who considered it a rare example of human agency in extremis, of a naked dancer on her way to the gas chamber who, when ordered by an SS officer to first perform for him, had danced toward him, “seized” his gun, and shot him dead before she herself was killed. Despite her disavowal of the direct comparison, Friedan insisted that for women “to escape they must, like the dancer, finally exercise their human freedom, and recapture their sense of self.”

Clearly, Jews and their fate at the hands of the Nazis were critical referents in this discourse about oppression, persecution, and resistance, and the voices of émigrés and survivors carried a particular authority for both Jews and non-Jews. Indisputably, the refugee voices were split; some agreed that the student militants expressed a necessary resistance, a saying “no,” despite all doubts and fears, to complicity, to tolerating the perceived Schreibtischtäter in the great research universities—at Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Michigan, Wisconsin. For young activists, Jews and not, refugee offspring or not, the increasing militancy of the movement offered a way to “kill the inner pig,” in a manner not so dissimilar perhaps to what young Germans were experiencing as they contemplated the “inner Nazi” they were terrified of finding within themselves.

But other émigrés drew very different lessons, finding—as did their émigré colleagues in Germany, in the student movement as it developed in the second part of the ’60s and into the early 1970s—anxiety-provoking reminders of other angry youth in uniforms who attacked the rituals and carriers of higher education. I can vividly recall a spirited debate in 1969 at the University of Chicago (from whence I proceeded to be expelled because of my unapologetic participation in a sit-in at the Administration Building) between Bettelheim and Herbert Marcuse about the merits and dangers of an occupation that specifically targeted a university and whether the “life of the mind” as practiced in Hyde Park was a precious privilege to be preserved under all circumstances or an accessory to racism on the South Side of Chicago, and a host of other evils. The two refugees, both white-haired old men with accents, or so they seemed to my 18-year-old eyes, held fundamentally opposed views on the issue, and I, of course, agreed with Marcuse. But I do remember in myself, what even then I deemed a peculiarly Jewish—or at least refugee child—unease with the aggressive crowds at rallies, with loud chanting, with getting lost in the collective spirit, and especially with the militarist uniforms and habitus of the Black Panthers who had replaced the gentler heroes of the civil rights movement as the fearless freedom fighters we were supposed to emulate.

Throughout the ’60s then, in radically changing form, black/white solidarity and conflict remained central. Breaks and splits came when SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had played such an important role in the southern struggles) expelled its white activists in 1966 and when, especially after the 1967 war and Israeli occupation, some African American activists started to identify with Palestinians rather than Jews, moving away from what had been sincere admiration for Jewish nationalism and the pioneer ethos of the young Jewish state. After 1967, Jewish activists had to contend with a new level of tension as they confronted denunciations of the “imperialist Zionist war” and its supporters. In a particularly suggestive and perverse manifestation of the ever-changing uses of Holocaust referents, Todd Gitlin reports, Panther publications now affixed Jewish stars to cartoons of Zionist pigs.

It is not an accident, then, that noted writer Alice Walker, explaining why she joined the American flotilla to Gaza, invokes memories of black-Jewish solidarity in the civil rights movement (including her relationship with her ex-husband, a fellow activist), along with images of unarmed Indian protesters in the movie Gandhi: She cites “an awareness of paying off a debt to the Jewish civil rights activists who faced death to come to the side of black people in the South in our time of need. I am especially indebted to Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who heard our pleas for help—our government then as now glacially slow in providing protection to nonviolent protesters—and came to stand with us.” She reminds us that “They got as far as the truncheons and bullets of a ‘few good ol boys’ of Neshoba County, Mississippi, and were beaten and shot to death along with James Chaney, a young black man of formidable courage who died with them.” And that is why, she tells us, she has joined this controversial protest against Israeli policy: “So, even though our boat will be called ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ it will fly the Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner flag in my heart.”

The era marked also the awakening of a particular kind of Jewish radicalism that moved toward militant Zionism while also drawing on the disillusionment, even disgust, of a younger generation, not as in Germany with the complicit or perpetrator past of Nazi parents, but with the suburban blandness and materialism of a Jewish middle class just starting to feel secure and comfortable in American society. Some young Jews were attracted to a Jewish national and religious revival that was undoubtedly shaped by the “movement” but certainly not of it, most notably what Gal Beckerman has called “The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.” This latter campaign appropriated the language of “Let My People Go,” sung with such fervor by black and white, Jewish and Christian activists in the civil rights movement, but now with a particularist Jewish focus. The late ’60s also produced the extreme excesses of Jewish nationalism, exemplified by Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League, with their unabashed recruitment of analogies to Hitler and Nazism.

The later ’60s produced, then, a right-wing Jewish radicalism but, as the progressive movement splintered, it also fostered, perhaps in reaction, a left-wing Jewish renewal, a political and cultural Jewish counter-culture that has endured in some ways until today. For the children of former Jewish Communists, who sang the songs and venerated the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto and the partisans in their Yiddish schools and summer camps, Yiddishkeit served as an alternative to the Communist God that had failed, to religion and to Zionism. But there were also specifically Jewish Movement Centers established as part of the mobilizations against the war and egalitarian spiritual and social Havurah communities exploring (and re-inventing) Jewish identity and traditions, independent of congregations, that were built in New York and Boston. Arthur Waskow, the indefatigable Jewish renewal, peace, and human-rights advocate (from whom I still get almost daily emails about some good cause or another, from environmental protection to peace in the Middle East), produced alternative Haggadot that served ecumenical activists on Passover, the holiday most likely to bring together blacks and Jews.

As Jewish-identified youth generated their own generational rebellion, picketing the large mainstream Jewish organizations for their lack of authenticity and commitment either to Jewish values or general social justice, they had support from rabbis like Balfour Brickner, who had in April 1969, on the anniversary of King’s assassination, led a Freedom Seder for several hundred people in an African American church in Washington, D.C., with its own peculiar mix of the Exodus story, liturgy from Thoreau, John Brown, Martin Buber, and Emanuel Ringelblum—accompanied by a chorus of “Peat Bog Soldiers,” “Go Down Moses,” and traditional prayers and Yiddish songs. Unlike the Jewish civil rights activists for whom their Judaism was part of a general social justice commitment, there were Jewish New Leftists who chose to work as conscious Jews, invoking the prophetic tradition of Amos, “justice, justice, shall you pursue” and engaging in a continuing struggle with their positions and feelings about Israel—what Brickner called “My Zionist Dilemma.” It is a dilemma that endures.


Only after 1969, however, did we enter into a period both of violent actions on the one hand, and–for many of us—the exhilarating intensities of the women’s movement—a true saving grace for women in the movement as the rest was coming apart. If some Jews turned to specifically Jewish causes, for many women in the movement, including of course Jews, homeless after SDS crumbled into factionalism and the craziness of Weathermen, the most lasting and significant legacy of the ’60s was feminism. I remember distinctly that we felt lucky compared to our male comrades; we had someplace meaningful to go, a way of continuing the practices of “the personal is political” in very direct ways, while the men seemed much more lost and disoriented.

Interestingly, the women’s movement (although perhaps not Gay Liberation with its pink triangles) seemed even less tied to Jewish identities or shadows of the Holocaust than either the civil rights movement or the New Left. Indeed, at a recent conference on “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity,” which brought together many greying veterans, the most common remark was: “We didn’t think in those terms then” accompanied by the frequent whisper, “I didn’t know she was Jewish!” It had taken until 2011 to organize such a retrospective.

Like Jews in the movement as a whole, Jewish women seem to have been disproportionately represented among feminists. Some were rebelling against conservative parents and the pressure to marry and procreate, sometimes couched in the need to repopulate after the Holocaust. Others were following models learned in leftist households with activist mothers, or simply a tradition that valued education and Jewish women’s customary role as breadwinners. But Consciousness Raising, conversations about sexuality and orgasms, demands for legal abortion, for equal rights in higher education and at the workplace, campaigns against sexual violence, battering, harassment–none of this was specifically Jewish. With women, at least initially, firmly focused on the solidarities of gender, there were, as the gathering confirmed, even fewer direct allusions to Jewish experience.

Nonetheless—no surprise—as women reflected on their experiences, they unearthed specifically Jewish motifs. Several veterans spoke of a sense of marginality to mainstream American culture that attracted them to the Left and to identification with the black struggle. This seemed especially true for Jews outside large cities, where to be a smart Jewish girl with dark frizzy hair was to be truly different. With parents who were refugees or radicals coping with the specter of McCarthyism in the 1950s, where a whiff of cosmopolitanism could already be subversive, there was, for some, an instinctive affinity to persons potentially at risk. And it was clear that whether one had grown up in the almost entirely Jewish worlds of Brooklyn or Shaker Heights, in the Communist Party counter-culture, in the suburbs, or in communities in the West, South, or Midwest with few Jews, the ’60s had made it OK to be different, to be exotic, to be too too much, in ways which were already stereotypically associated with Jewish women. Radical politics attracted those who were perceived (and perceived themselves) as loud, assertive, and resistant (even if involuntarily) to middle American standards of female beauty, work, and intellect.

Finally: Yes, a disproportionate number of Jews were 1960s activists or ’70s feminists, but for the most part their Jewish identity was not central or explicit, and to the degree that Nazis and the Holocaust cast their shadows, they enveloped non-Jews as well. In those days before identity politics, the movement served, rather (as I have tried to argue) as a means of accessing a common citizenship (a traditional Jewish strategy of universalism) that would make Jews into “real Americans.” The 1967 Six-Day War and then the divisions in the post-1969 Left did mark a shift for many explicitly Jewish voices; women turned to new forms of solidarity within second-wave feminism, others (certainly not all) turned inward, away from general social justice and civil rights activism. This conscious particularism brought with it a fraught shift in the meaning of the Holocaust’s shadow and the implication of “Jewish voices”: from “Never again a good German” to never again a victim. This interpretation, and the obligations it implies, generates new dilemmas for politically active Jews today (as well as for all who teach Jewish and Holocaust Studies) that are in many ways much more difficult to navigate than those we faced in the ’60s.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 13:1 (March 2014). That essay was based on a presentation at a conference on “Jewish Voices in the German Sixties,” Schloss Elmau, June 2012.


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Atina Grossmann is Professor of History in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Cooper Union in New York City, where she teaches Modern European history and Gender Studies. In 2014–15 she is the Walter Benjamin Guest Professor in German Jewish History and Culture at the Humboldt University, Berlin.

Atina Grossmann is Professor of History in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Cooper Union in New York City, where she teaches Modern European history and Gender Studies. In 2014–15 she is the Walter Benjamin Guest Professor in German Jewish History and Culture at the Humboldt University, Berlin.