It was May 28, 1939 - a memorable moment in the history of American Jewry. On that Sunday, 100,000 people gathered for the opening of the Palestine Pavilion at the World's Fair in Flushing Meadow, New York City. The chairman of the day was Dr. Israel Goldstein, the noted rabbi and Zionist leader.
His wife, the late Dr. Bert Goldstein, shared her memories of that event with me 20 years ago in Jerusalem.
"When my husband and I reached the pavilion that Sunday morning, thousands of people were already waiting for the speakers and looking forward to the other activities." This was the largest turnout for any single event held during the two years of the fair's duration, recalled Bert, who, as she sat in the audience, witnessed what took place on the podium.
"My husband, Israel, in his efficient manner, came on to the podium from behind the curtains to see if there were sufficient chairs for Einstein, the noted writer Thomas Mann, mayor LaGuardia and others. Amazingly, he found every single chair occupied. He tried to persuade the 'occupiers' to get up, at first to no avail, but finally they listened to him. What a relief."
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, watching the activities from the wings, whispered to Dr. Israel Goldstein, "How do you Zionists expect to manage a state of your own if you cannot even manage a platform?" Albert Einstein emphasized in his touching phrases, "...this is a refuge in a stormy sea of turmoil." Chaim Weizmann spoke by radio from London, and others highlighted the great creation of this Palestine Pavilion.
THE PERSON who made it all happen was the "wunderkind" of American Zionism, Meyer Weisgal. Once he was given the reins, a year before the opening of this pavilion, he moved heaven and earth to fashion an exhibit which would reflect Eretz Yisrael - the Land of Israel - as it was 70 years ago. The building was designed by Arieh El-Hanani of Jerusalem. All of the artwork came from Israel. In the building, dioramas presented the Jewish homeland, and there were many "blue and white" products displayed. Amazingly, Weisgal had his building placed on the fair's Avenue of Nations. Just before the start of World War II, the feeling of a Jewish state was created for people of all faiths who visited the Palestine Pavilion.
A college student then, the late Zionist historian Dr. Marnin Feinstein captured the spirit of that opening day: "There were thousands of Jewish flags of all sizes being waved. The words of 'Hatikva' being sung that day resound in my ears." Then, an even more touching moment occurred, he said. "The enormous crowd of well-wishers made it very difficult to enter the building except with a long wait. Suddenly, as we got near the entrance, many older people took bottles of wine out of their bags and made the borei pri hagefen blessing and then the sheheheyanu blessing - for new enterprises - just as they entered the pavilion's portals."
According to Goldstein, over two and a quarter million people visited the Palestine Pavilion. Summing up its importance she said, "That structure at the World's Fair aroused the consciousness of our own Jewish people about what the land of Palestine might become. When the war was over, the memories of that pavilion helped to energize American Jewry and provided them with a stimulus to work to bring the State of Israel into being."
The euphoria in American Jewish life in May, June and July over this major step forward - a Palestine building at the World's Fair - was widespread. Rabbis spoke about the building from their pulpits. Jews traveled lengthy distances to see the pavilion firsthand. In spite of the British White Paper preventing Jews from entering Mandate Palestine, American Jewry was all aglow.
Then the bottom fell out. In August, Hitler sent his foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow, where he and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov signed a non-aggression pact between their countries. The American press reported this agreement with skepticism, but soon the truth became clear. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and began what was to become the tragic Holocaust of European Jewry.
Whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew what was truly happening is a part of historical discussion. What is clear is the timidity of the American rabbis who addressed their congregants on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur of September 1939 - the beginning of the Jewish year 5700.
WHAT WERE some of the root causes of the rabbinic silence? According to the American Jewish Yearbook 1939-40 edition, the problem of anti-Semitism in America was quite widespread. "In the summer of 1939 the activities of anti-Jewish propagandists in the US, from the distribution of printed matter to street demonstrations and radio broadcasts, had reached a high point." In New York City there were as many as 60 anti-Jewish disturbances per week. In Atlanta, Georgia, Rabbi Harry Epstein, one of the city's Orthodox rabbis, spoke out against the activities of the Klu Klux Klan, which was anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic. He also pointed to some of the demagogues in the American south who labeled "the Jew as a Shylock reborn."
The best known anti-Semite, with his weekly radio broadcasts from Royal Oak, Michigan, was the Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin. After spewing anti-Jewish diatribes for several years in the late 1930s, he became increasingly anti-democratic in his broadcasts in the latter part of August 1939. This rubric was another way of singling out and further demonizing the American Jew.
Fortunately, the Yearbook emphasizes "that when war broke out in Poland in September, American opinion was quick to recognize that the anti-Jewish propaganda drive had really been a smoke screen the Nazis had prepared - which was actually an assault on civilization." Moreover, after the war began, "neutrality" rallies organized by the Christian Front and other anti-democratic groups served as the impetus for renewed anti-Jewish attacks.
"Appealing to the manifest desire of the American people to remain at peace, these groups adopted a new propaganda line. All democratic institutions were labeled as instruments of a 'Jewish front' - Jews accused of warmongering."
MY LATE father, Louis Geffen, an attorney in Atlanta from 1928 until January 1941, when Roosevelt called in army reservists, of which he was one, shared some information on this period:
"Early in 1939 I was contacted by a local Atlanta radio station in regard to a series which it hoped to run. Up until that time, Father Coughlin's name was known to me only through stories which I was shown by my father, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, in the Yiddish newspaper. The station manager was looking for justification for having weekly Coughlin broadcasts and thought that an "enlightened Jew" and native southerner like myself would understand. Immediately, I contacted Mr. Ed Kahn, the head of the local Jewish Federation, so these programs could be prevented. Kahn had no luck. The station was getting funds to put Coughlin on the air. I turned to several of my legal colleagues, all Christian and all highly respected in the community. Once they understood the problem, they used their influence with the moneyed Atlanta leadership and with the local Catholic priests to stop Coughlin's sentiments of hatred from being broadcast in the city. I knew what anti-Semitism meant and I could not let Atlanta be victimized."
The issue of American anti-Semitism during this period is often forgotten, but it did exist. The "neutrality" label was one which Roosevelt used well in slowing America's entry into the war. He also made it difficult, almost impossible, for Jews from Europe to find refuge in the United States. The best-known example is the ship the St. Louis, which in 1939 carried more than 900 German Jews. But it was forbidden from landing on American shores after it had been thrust away by Cuba, where it was initially headed. It seems that Roosevelt listened to those Americans who wanted no more immigrants, or specifically no more Jews, on US soil.
AMERICAN RABBIS, therefore, were faced with a challenging task in sermonizing for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in September 1939. The Los Angeles Times printed the words of Reform rabbi Mayer Winkler from a sermon entitled "Challenge to Society in these Terrible Days: On the Brink of the Abyss": "As far as the Jewish situation is concerned," the rabbi stressed, "the last 12 months portray one of the blackest chapters in history. Today we appear as humble beggars at the portals of the universe, uttering fervent prayers for life and liberty."
On September 16, 1939, right after Rosh Hashana, The New York Times headlined its sermon roundup story in this fashion: "Hitlerism is laid to moral lapses. Rabbis here urge dedication to the spiritual ideals to avert strife in the future. Rabbis interpret Hitlerism as moral weakness in modern civilization."
Rabbi Jacob Kraft, a Conservative rabbi of the Beth Shalom congregation in Wilmington, Delaware, reinforced in his Rosh Hashana sermon the thoughts of many of his colleagues: "The Akeda, the trial of Abraham and Isaac, is one that we all face on this New Year... How aware we are of some of the intentions of Hitler in conquering Poland and then perhaps the whole world. God wants us to know that we are being tested as was our patriarch of old. How far will we go in maintaining neutrality and isolation as a great nation when we, its citizens, are terribly afraid of the plight of our European brothers and sisters. Abraham went to the top of Mount Moriah with Isaac - only God saved him. Will we permit our president and our governmental leaders to permit the destruction of Poland and its Jews and then other nations and their Jews? Right now I am not prepared to lead a battle against FDR, but the time will come - America will go to war. Let us not be too late - let the Isaac of our people in Europe survive."
"The outbreak of war did not come as a surprise, but the impact was to be devastating to a committed pacifist [as were most of the rabbis]. This would be the first of four successive New Years when every rabbi had to face a congregation under circumstances unimaginably worse than the year before, and summon up something to say," writes the noted Jewish historian Prof. Marc Saperstein, who has become the expert on Jewish sermons throughout the ages. His late father, Rabbi Harold Saperstein, served the congregation in Lynbrook, New York, on Long Island for over three decades. Using his father's archival holdings, Saperstein compiled a book of sermons called Witness from the Pulpit 1933-1980.
Included in the book is a sermon delivered by Rabbi Saperstein on Rosh Hashana eve, September 13, 1939:
"When I visited Danzig and Poland this summer, I wrote back and prophesied that war this autumn was inevitable. It was too late then. It is a terrible world indeed in which I, who hate the word 'war,' looked upon war as the lesser of two evils - preferable to seeing civilization yield once more to the triumphal march of Nazi barbarism. This war had to come. The time to stop it was 20 years ago, but then men were unwilling to listen."
Rabbi Saperstein had seen the potential of Hitler's activities firsthand but he still hesitated to call for US action. "America owes it to herself and the world to stay out of this war. We can serve the cause of democracy best if we preserve the principles of freedom and fellowship which today we possess almost alone among the peoples of the earth. The time will come when the war will be over. How it will end, no one knows. Who will be living and who will be dead, no one knows. But when it comes, America must be willing to take the leadership of the world on its path of peace."
In his closing remarks, he stated, "In the meanwhile, we must preserve the sanity which the world will need after its period of madness; we must preserve the spiritual ideals which the world will need after a period of brutality; we must preserve the breadth of vision which the world will need after a period of nationalistic hatred."
Sadly, the bits and pieces of information about Polish Jewry in September 1939, which did come through to the US as Rosh Hashana led into Yom Kippur, did not really alter the views of the rabbis. The roundup of Yom Kippur sermons in The New York Times on September 24 reinforced the solemnity of the Days of Awe: "Rabbis pray for the war area. President Roosevelt's pronouncement of peace abroad and neutrality is also praised on Yom Kippur. Pleas for justice made. Placing our own house in order by unmasking false leaders called a vital duty. Asks aid for Polish Jews."
Only in 1942 did the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermons change - by then the Holocaust was tragically in full swing.
The writer is the author of the American Heritage Haggadah, was a chaplain in the USarmy from 1965-67, and today he lives in Israel.