Tag Archives: 1940s

Apathy and Responsibility: The American Response to the Holocaust

There were millions of people dying unjustly at the hands of the Nazi regime in the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s and the American population and government, for all intents and purposes, were permitting this atrocity, or at least allowing it to happen. The pseudo history that is presented in the United States today about Americans being the “heroes” of World War II is only part of the story. What is usually not entailed in these Hollywood retellings is how many Americans denied the truth and urgency of what later became known as the Holocaust, which in its general form means total destruction. Furthermore, the utter lack of acknowledging that there were pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations active on American soil during the 1930s that were engaging in propaganda campaigns, protest, and violence is slanted to paint the U.S. as more responsive, at best. History tells a different story. The moral burden of the people in the 30s and 40s was paramount because the unprecedented liquidation of an entire ethnic group was occurring and responsibility was both unclaimed and undetermined. There were arguments on all sides, but while the American government officials were engaging in arguments about what to do, if anything, the Jewish population was being exterminated in Europe. On the one hand, people were screaming for justice and for help, screaming for anything other than America’s complicity in Hitler’s plight. On the other hand, there were the skeptics, non-believers, and or non-confrontationists who indicted the screamers as being war mongers, as liars, as being unprepared for the true tasks ahead, and “quietly and gently” calling for America and the people to wait.[i]  And at the heart of the argument was the question of responsibility, because it is on that conception that acceptance or denial to act hinged.

It is perhaps not difficult to understand and conceive that many people in the 30s and 40s felt a sense of urgency to help and alleviate the suffering of the millions of Jewish people, Jewish-sympathizers and dissenters from Nazi rule in Europe. It is probably more difficult to conceive of people lacking a sense of urgency, who either, believed the reports coming out of Europe were fabrications, or were devoid of any sense of responsibility to their fellow humans. Fred Eastman was of the latter sort and in 1944 having sufficient knowledge of the situation in Nazi occupied Europe, he wrote a cold and calculated critique of the people with a sense of urgency, titled, “A Reply to Screamers.”[ii]

The document written by Eastman is a response to an author named Arthur Koestler, who was a novelist that wove into his narratives some of the tragic tales he had experienced in Europe. Eastman admitted in his response that the “reports of the mass murders of Jews and countless others are too well authenticated to be denied,” but yet lacks any motivation to join the screamers because he believes it is after the war that that real effort will begin; “the long-term task of building peace.”[iii] He thinks the screamers are responding emotively in eruptions or fits, but does not provide any reason not to have an emotional response to what he termed “no blacker crime,” and that is why he comes across as cold. For example, Eastman draws upon the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, which is a story that is supposed to express one’s duty to help those in need, and he could have chosen any example or explanation to follow it, but he chooses to quote a girl so young she cannot form the ‘th’ sound and whom has, as he calls it, an “emotional regurgitation,” instead of the correct moral response, which would have been a desire to help.[iv] The implicit analogy Eastman is making with this young girl is that the screamers are uneducated and immature children who do not understand morality or duty to others, and are in need of guidance. It is this unfeeling and unsympathetic, matter-of-fact, disregard for human connection and the bonds that actually motivate duty to others, that makes Eastman’s response to Koestler so cold. In addition, Eastman believed himself to be a typical representative of the American population who was in opposition of the war and the efforts to help the Jewish people in Europe.[v]

In stark contrast to Eastman, Freda Kirchwey, wrote an article in 1943 titled, “While the Jews Die,”[vi] blaming the United States and the United Nations for their complicity and failure to do their duty to help those in need.  After opening the article with an enumeration of the Nazis’ program of extermination, Kirchwey, straightforwardly identifies the blameworthy by stating; “In this country, you and I and the President and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt.”[vii] The “you” is a general you and given the context of the sentence it is found in, it seems most appropriate to assume the audience and recipient of the condemnation is the American people as a whole. Thus, Kirchwey lays blame flatly on both the citizens and government of the United States for their skepticism, apathy, complicity and “share” in the oppression and extermination of the Jews in Europe. Whereas Eastman believes the correct moral response is to wait, Kirchwey believes the Americans have already waited too long and the correct moral response is to act now to help the Jewish people. Kirchwey’s article was written a nearly a year prior to Eastman’s response, when more proof had been compiled, but the evidence was not enough to motivate many Americans to accept the burden of duty, with a sense of urgency to help those in need.

It is too easy of an analysis to suppose that it was anti-Semitic sentiment and prejudice that motivated the apathy of the American people although, this was certainly a factor for many people’s judgment, the reality of the reasons for the lack of urgency are more nuanced than that. There was a lack of faith in the credibility of the reports, but also questions about the motivations of the people making the reports or screaming for action, and a belief that a conflict of this magnitude was inevitable. Eastman argues that the conflict with Hitler and the Nazi regime was a “mighty conflict…over [different] philosophies of life,” that was destined to occur.[viii] Behind Eastman’s belief in this conflict rested a nest of religious and political conflicts about the origination and fruition of rights; God-given rights that lead to democracy and state-granted rights that lead to tyranny by a “master race.”[ix] This fatalistic perspective of the war with the Nazis and the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe omits autonomy, free-will, and choice from the reckoning and thus, attempts to absolve responsibility. Notwithstanding the success of this line of reasoning, the objective was to assert that if there was no responsibility, then there was no duty to help those in need and thus, no need for any moral urgency to help the Jewish people in Europe.

The fatalistic reasoning Eastman employs probably did not have as much resonance with the American people as did his critiques of the screamers wherein he claims that they “do not tell us specifically what they want us to do.”[x] This was the claim that founded his assertion that the screamers are calling for an “emotional regurgitation” instead of educated correct moral responses. Eastman ends this particular critique by appealing to the fact that his sons were in the war fighting the Nazis and that the screamers were non-combatants armchair moralizing, but not assuming any of the risks. What is revealed through these connections, in correlation with what has already been mentioned is that Eastman blames the Jews and the screamers for an imposed duty to risk life and limb for a people and a cause that it was not their responsibility to do so for. In the broader context, even given the anit-Semitic sentiments that existed within the United States in the 30s and 40s, the lack of moral urgency was more an outgrowth of the lack of moral responsibility than prejudice alone.

At the heart of the issue of the American apathy concerning the oppression and extermination of the Jewish people in Europe were conflicts with trust. At first it was the unbelievable characteristic of the reports coming out of Germany and Europe, but many of those reports were verified and still people continued to remain skeptic about the severity of the problem and their responsibility in the situation. Noted above, Eastman made two claims; that the screamers made no specific demands and that they were also non-combatants, and while that may have been the case for many, it was not always the case. Varian Fry was an American journalist who volunteered with the Emergency Rescue Committee in France in 1940 and also created an underground network to help Jews escape Nazi extermination; was what Eastman would consider a screamer.[xi] Thus, it is not the case that the screamers were not taking risks and responsibility, but were in fact acting on their convictions while simultaneously calling on others to act as well.

In 1942, Fry wrote “The Massacre of the Jews,” which moves from being accommodating and understanding of why skepticism exists, and transitions to condemning with focused anger the apathetic and skeptical American population and government. Important to note in this account is the list of specific actions being requested that Eastman claims does not exist. Fry calls on President Roosevelt and Churchill to make public statements and to “speak out again against these monstrous events.” Fry also screamed for the development of Tribunals to “amass facts,” for Diplomatic warnings to be issued to the countries in the Balkans region, for the Allies to form a blockade, to provide asylum for refugees, and to feed the Jews in the occupied territories. He also called on the Christian churches, the Protestant Leaders and the Pope, to excommunicate and condemn anyone who assisted the Nazis. Lastly, Fry suggested that any efforts that are made should be broadcasted and made public because the Nazi actions required secrecy and hoped to “create resistance” and foster “rebellion” among the people. This is a very specific list of things that can be done to assist the Jewish people and hardly any of them hint at combat, and this also shatters the conception that the “screamers do not tell us specifically what they want us to do.” What is revealed is that the America population was not listening to the screamers and chose to label them as war mongers as a justification for not assuming responsibility and displaying the moral urgency necessary to prevent or end the mass extermination of the Jewish people in Europe.[xii]

This account should not be taken to mean that Americans did not play a pivotal role in WWII and the liberation of the Jewish people from the Nazi concentration camps and occupation, because that is not true. This account was meant to convey a portion of the complex and disparate moral and ethical views of Americans in the 1930s and 1940s by analyzing their own words and setting them into context with one another. By doing so, I hope this exposition has challenged the pseudo history that presents the decision to go to war as a simple and contradicted it. There is great sacrifice in going to war for any reason, especially when it is for another country and people. Not only was Nazi campaign unprecedented in history, but so was the Allied response to Hitler’s Nazi regime, and it had to be justified both to the United States Congress and the American citizenry. For some, the mere numbers, methods, and length of time of the oppression and extermination of the Jews were enough justification to warrant the moral urgency. However, others were either, reluctant to believe, felt the need to wait, or were not willing to sacrifice the resources and lives necessary for a people they did not feel obligatory duties towards. The volume of people killed and the scope of the Nazis’ plans brought the ethical dilemma; “to kill or let die,” to the surface, wherein America’s apathy was indicted for being; “accessories to the crime” as Kirchwey says and thus, responsible to act with moral urgency.

[i] Eastman, Fred, “A Reply to Screamers,” Christian Century, February 6, 1944.  American Views the Holocaust 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History, Edit. Robert H. Abzug (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 171.

[ii] Eastman, 170-174.

[iii] Eastman, 173.

[iv] Eastman, 172.

[v] Eastman, 171.

[vi] Kirchwey, Freda “While the Jews Die,” Nation, March 13, 1943. American Views the Holocaust 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History, Edit. Robert H. Abzug (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 152-155.

[vii]Kirchwey, 153.

[viii] Eastman, 172.

[ix] Eastman, 172.

[x] Eastman, 172.

[xi] Fry, Varian, “The Massacre of the Jews,” New Republic, December. 21, 1942.  American Views the Holocaust 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History, Edit. Robert H. Abzug (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 126-127.

[xii] Fry, 132-133.

The Saint’s Lamp: A Critique of the Liberal Experiment in Egypt (1940’s)

Yahya Haqqi, the author of The Saints Lamp and Other Stories, originally published in 1944, was an Egyptian who wrote a novella that can be interpreted as a symbolic criticism of the Liberal Experiment in Egypt that followed World War I and, a comparison-contrast of the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.[1] Haqqi presents the argument that the East and the West can and should be reconciled and he does this through his use of the less politically volatile examples of science and religion of an eye doctor in a small community, as oppose to political parties and Islamic religion at the level of the state and society. Furthermore, The Saint’s Lamp can be read as a criticism of the Liberal Experiment because Ismail, the protagonist of the story, struggles to reconcile the European education and values he brought back to Egypt after studying abroad with the Islamic traditions and values of his homeland.

It is difficult to place the exact time of the The Saint’s Lamp because many of the characteristics and patterns Haqqi notes existed in both the 19th and 20th Centuries, but the setting is not as important as its contextual meaning. It mentions that Ismail’s father, the narrator’s grandfather, moved to Cairo after the establishment of the Ministry of Public Works in the mid-late 19th Century, of trains and crowded ship yards, and mass migrations, which all point to a mid-20th Century setting. Thus, given the literary convention of utilizing similar events and symbols to provide commentary on contemporary circumstances, and given that The Saint’s Lamp was published in 1944, this suggests that Haqqi was critiquing the interwar period of Egypt wherein the Liberal Experiment was taking shape and both the Wafd Party (est. 1918-1924) and the Muslim Brotherhood (est. 1928) became primary actors in Egypt.[2]

The name of the protagonist, Ismail, is significant both because of its ties to Haqqi’s past and its relevance in 1944. Isma’il the Magnificent was a secular reformist in Egypt during the Tanzimat era of the mid-late 19th Century and his primary objective was the complete Europeanization of Egypt at the cost of subjugating Islamic traditions.[3] Similarly, Haqqi’s Ismail, after returning to Egypt from Europe to find it the victim of “ignorance, poverty, disease and age-long oppression,”[4] who saw Egyptians as a backward people who had forgotten their historical greatness, “was determined to deal to ignorance and superstition a mortal blow, even if that should cost him his life.”[5] However, the outcome of Isma’il the Magnificent’s reforms and infrastructural improvements led him to borrow substantial sums from foreign entities, then to a huge debt that led to the Urabi Revolt (1879-1882), and essentially to the British occupation of Egypt that utterly changed the state.[6] And Haqqi’s Ismail, returned to Egypt as an eye specialist to witness his mother treating his fiancé, Fatima’s diseased eyes in the (backward) traditional way with oil from the Saint, Umm Hashim’s Lamp.[7]  He exploded and revolted against both his family and the mosque that protected the lamp and was subsequently mauled by a mob for his revolt.[8] After which he decided to use the European method to fix her, but only succeeded in destroying her vision.[9] The name of the protagonist coupled with the historical relevance of Isma’il the Magnificent would potentially have had a resounding impact on the Egyptian people because it conveyed the conclusion Ismail draws; “There can be no science without faith,”[10] or more to the point that any Europeanization in Egypt without Islamic values guiding it was destined for failure. The name Ismail, had recent historical relevance that could have been seen to apply to the Liberal Experiment.

The prominent actor in Egypt in 1944 who exemplified the image of the destructive impact of Europeanization on Egyptian society is the Wafd Party. The leader of the Wafd Party, Sa’d Zaghlul, had a “European-style education” and the party was instrumental in the institution of an imported Western-style, secular democratic-parliamentary government, in 1924. [11] Because the Wafd Party championed the symbolic independence of Egypt the people voted them into office, but their support was short lived because they distanced themselves from the population by asserting that European civilization was superior to Egyptian civilization.[12] Reminiscent of Isma’il the Magnificent, the Wafd Party sought to supplant European Values for Islamic values, but instead of creating an independent and prosperous state, Egypt remained a pawn of Britain and furthered the divide between rich and poor. For these reasons, it seems probable that if Haqqi was a critiquing a contemporary actor, then it was the Wafd Party because they imported and set in juxtaposition the East and West as oppose to reconciling them.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a prominent actor in response to the secularization of the country, and operated on the premise that in order for there to be political and social regeneration Islam had to be restored.[13] However, for them that did not mean the dissolution of Western influence in Egypt, but rather, a fusion of the technological and scientific advancements of the West with Islamic values. Haqqi agreed with their assertion, as was evinced by the transition he brings Ismail through unto the point that “[h]e return[s] to his science and medicine, but this time fortified by faith,” who was not only successful in restoring Fatima’s eye sight, but in healing many others because “[h]e relied first upon God, and secondly on his learning and the skill of his hands.”[14] In stark contrast to the Wafd Party who is symbolized by the Ismail who is reminiscent of Isma’il the Magnificent; the Muslim Brotherhood is symbolized by the Ismail who reclaimed his traditional values. The Muslim Brotherhood advocated that God should be the director of Egypt’s development, while implementing what they thought was useful to their society from the West. Thus, it seems clear that Haqqi believed the Muslim Brotherhood would be the actor who would lead the Egyptian people to the future they sought and heal the nation.

The Saint’s Lamp shows that both religion and science have their purposes, and also that neither is sufficient for Egyptians alone, but rather, that they must be implemented together to achieve their greatest potential. Yet, Haqqi is also warning his fellow Egyptians that if they learn science and technical skills from Europeans, then they risk losing their faith and trust in Islam while being indoctrinated with European values. However, the significance of the The Saint’s Lamp, or rather, Islamic values for Haqqi, is that they provide an understanding, which allows the Egyptian people to perceive how to successfully employ and reconcile science with religion, and further to reconcile government with the goals of an Egyptian society while maintaining those values.


[1] Yahya Haqqi, “The Saint’s Lamp” (1944, English trans. 1973), 1-38.

[2] Cleveland, William L., and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), 180-185.

[3] Cleveland, 88.

[4] Yahya Haqqi, 22.

[5] Yahya Haqqi, 27.

[6] Cleveland, 88-93.

[7] Yahya Haqqi, 25.

[8] Yahya Haqqi, 26-30.

[9] Yahya Haqqi, 31-32.

[10] Yahya Haqqi, 36.

[11] Cleveland, 180-182.

[12] Cleveland, 184.

[13] Cleveland, 185.

[14] Yahya Haqqi, 37.