David Weinberg’s multi-national study, focusing on France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, offers a wide lens through which to view post-war efforts to help Jewish communal life recover its voice and its raison d’être. By underscoring the similarities in the situation facing Jews across borders, he demonstrates how the three communities with the aid of international Jewish organizations utilized unprecedented means to meet unprecedented challenges. We caught up with David Weinberg to discuss more about the book.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Recovering a Voice and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?
In the course of my writing and research on modern Jewish history over the past half century, I became increasingly aware of the absence of serious discussion of post-war European Jewry. What little I could find echoed the familiar trope that continental Jews were vanishing or had already vanished. I also gradually realized that these attitudes were mirrored in the attitudes of the general Jewish population in both America and Israel. Trips to Europe, which focused on death camps and bypassed contemporary Jewish institutions, reinforced the image of a “world that is no more.” So too did displays in synagogues and museums that portrayed ritual items of European communities as historical artifacts or objets d’art.
I was determined to “right the wrong” by publishing a general survey of European Jewry since World War Two that would demonstrate its continuing vibrancy and strength. I soon realized, however, that the topic was unmanageable. Nor was I prepared to make any bold predictions about the future of European Jewish life, especially in light of the wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the past two and a half decades. In the end, I decided to produce a more limited study that would concentrate on three Jewish communities that struggled and largely succeeded in recovering their place in European and world Jewish affairs in the first decade and a half after the devastation of the Holocaust.
You discuss how the efforts made by French, Belgian, and Dutch Jews to reconstruct their lives after the Second World War have largely been ignored. Why do you think this area has been overlooked in previous scholarship?
There are several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that research on twentieth-century European Jewry has focused almost entirely on eastern Europe and especially Poland, communities that were decimated during the Holocaust. The result is that the immediate post–war era has become almost exclusively associated with the fate of DP’s (Displaced Persons), who were uprooted and who were unlikely to return to their homelands. Second, continental countries fearing that they would be accused of anti-Semitism have incorporated their Jewish citizens into their narrative of national postwar recovery. The result is that few general works about Europe after 1945 even bother to mention Jews – except as victims of Nazism. Finally, scholars of modern Jewish history are mostly American or Israeli in origin and view their communities as having replaced European Jewry as centers of contemporary Jewish life.
What kind of sources did you use in the research of this work? Are there any sources that particularly stand out to you which you could share details of with us?
The two major sources were the archives of major international Jewish relief and political organizations active in post-war reconstruction and of the newly created Jewish communal bodies in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. I also made good use of community-wide newspapers and journals, which sprang up almost immediately after the resumption of communal life. Several of these sources have been digitally reproduced and are available on-line; others remain largely untouched and difficult to access.
Amongst the thousands of documents that I waded through, several have stuck in my memory. The correspondence between leaders of American agencies and emerging leaders of west European Jewry are filled with stereotypical comments about the other that belie the public image of postwar mutual good will and amity. In my examination of the Cold War, I was surprised to find how crucial anti-communist fears played in American Jewish attitudes towards European Jewish reconstruction. (Typical was a letter by Joseph McCarthy’s ally Roy Cohn warning the Joint Distribution Committee about the infiltration of “communist” elements into French Jewish communal organizations.) Then there are the veiled and not so veiled anti-Semitic comments contained in several of the speeches of General Charles De Gaulle and other Resistance figures on the eve of Liberation. Finally, I uncovered fascinating details about the struggle between Yad Vashem and local European Jewish institutions for control of both the documentation and the memory of the Holocaust.
What I most regret is that I was unable to interview participants in the events. Though I am grateful to those who shared their recollections, I wish that their memories of the past had been as keen as my interest in the subject.
How does Recovering a Voice pave the way for future research in this area?
Though my investigation of primary sources was exhaustive, sending me to archives in the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Israel, there were many sources I was unable or did not have the time to investigate. In recent years, several young Dutch and French historians have begun to fill in these gaps by mining local documents with excellent results. I would also encourage researchers to examine developments in local communities outside of the major centers of Jewish life. Finally, I look forward to seeing studies on other aspects of communal life that I did not closely investigate, including most notably cultural and literary trends that illustrate the obstacles facing survivors who chose to remain in their native or adopted homelands.
What are you working on next?
I have been thinking about preparing a series of essays on the challenges and opportunities facing world Jewry in the years immediately after the Holocaust. The study would focus on the complex interrelationship amongst American, Israeli, and European Jewry. How did American Jews emerge as a major force in world Jewry after the war and how was their new role viewed by European and Israeli Jews? What assumptions did Israeli leaders after 1948 make about the fate of European Jewish survivors who remained in their homelands and of American Jews? What efforts did European Jewish leaders make to maintain a sense of a distinctive Jewish heritage in the wake of the Holocaust?
For more information on Recovering a Voice, please visit our website.