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"In a world still trembling": American Jewish philanthropy and the shaping of Holocaust survivor narratives in postwar America (1945 - 1953)


The insistence that American Jews did not respond to the Holocaust has long defined the postwar period as one of silence and inaction. In fact, American Jewish communal organizations waged a robust response to the Holocaust that addressed the immediate needs of survivors in the aftermath of the war and collected, translated, and transmitted stories about the Holocaust and its survivors to American Jews. Fundraising materials that employed narratives about Jewish persecution under Nazism reached nearly every Jewish home in America and philanthropic programs aimed at aiding survivors in the postwar period engaged Jews across the politically, culturally, and socially diverse American Jewish landscape. This study examines the fundraising pamphlets, letters, posters, short films, campaign appeals, radio programs, pen-pal letters, and advertisements that make up the material record of this communal response to the Holocaust and, in so doing, examines how American Jews came to know stories about Holocaust survivors in the early postwar period.

This kind of cultural history expands our understanding of how the Holocaust became part of an American Jewish discourse in the aftermath of the war by revealing that philanthropic efforts produced multiple survivor representations while defining American Jews as saviors of Jewish lives and a Jewish future. Paying particular attention to visual and material sources that both reflected and generated communal knowledge about the Holocaust, this work affirms how important the specific context of postwar America was in shaping this initial encounter. As such, American Jewish communal organizations integrated core American motifs such as thanksgiving, freedom, and hope into their narratives about Holocaust survivors, rendering stories of refuge and tragedy into accounts of survival and triumph. This work complicates historical assumptions about postwar silence and inaction by recognizing that philanthropy served as an important site of memory construction and a meaningful way for American Jews to respond to the Holocaust.

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