‘Things could have been much worse had the cataclysm of the Holocaust not happened,” said Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock recently over lunch at a Jerusalem café.
A statement like this is hard to swallow if you don’t realize that his new book, “The Holocaust Averted: An Alternate History of American Jewry, 1938-1967,” deals with counterfactual history, a speculative exploration of what-ifs, and the author is in no way dismissive of the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
What Gurock demonstrates in his book is that World War II was a major turning point in American Jewish history, and that many positive things came out of it for American Jews as well as for US-Israel relations. Had key moments in the run-up to and during the course of the war played out differently, the Holocaust may not have happened. Gurock posits that instead, Jews in America would have had to “run for cover.” They would have had to assume—and maintain—a low profile, never achieving the level of empowerment and agency that we associate with American Jews today.
This is the first time that Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author and editor of 14 books, including “Orthodox Jews in America” and “Jews in Gotham: New York Jews And Their Changing City,” has tried his hand at counterfactual history. “It is, at the very root, the idea of conjecturing on what did not happen, or what might have happened, in order to understand what did happen,” wrote Jeremy Black and Donald M. MacRaild in their study guide, “Studying History.”
“I’m going out on a limb in a way, but people won’t saw it off,” said Gurock. “I’m emphasizing turning points in history, and I am using primary sources and important secondary sources.”
Gurock is not the only Jewish historian pursuing counterfactual history. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, a professor at Fairfield University, whose specialization is the history and memory of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, administers the Counterfactual History Review blog and is editing a forthcoming book titled “What Ifs of Jewish History.” In addition, several counterfactual history panels were offered at the Association for Jewish Studies Conference in Boston in December 2013.
The idea for “The Holocaust Averted” came to Gurock when he and his wife were visiting the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, Poland, six years ago. The fact that much Jewish culture was all around them, but that Jews were nowhere to be seen, struck a deep chord for Gurock. He started to wonder what Jewish life would have been like in present-day Krakow had the Holocaust not taken place and the Jews of the city been virtually wiped out.
When the author came across an article by a WWII military scholar about how the remilitarization of Germany gained crucial strength between 1938 and 1939, he realized that had Germany gone to war a year earlier than it actually had, things might have turned out differently for European Jewry—and consequently also for Jews in America and what was then Mandatory Palestine.
Accordingly, Gurock’s alternate WWII history starts with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain refusing to appease Germany’s Hitler in Munich in September 1938. In this alternate scenario, Germany ends up starting the war in Europe a year earlier, with its forces facing stiff opposition from the Czechs.
Gurock, relying on historical sources, presents many other key WWII events as taking place differently than they really did. For instance, an account of a meeting of Japanese leaders shows that some of them were firmly opposed to bombing Pearl Harbor. The author has these voices prevailing, and offers readers a striking image of American sailors sunning themselves on the deck of the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941.
In “The Holocaust Averted,” Hitler is assassinated and Franklin D. Roosevelt does not serve a third term as US president and is succeeded by the staunch non-interventionist Robert A. Taft. The Jews of Germany suffer under Nazism, but with Hitler’s army suffering major defeats, the horrors of the Holocaust never come about and European Jewish communities stay intact. With the Jews of Europe relatively safe, American Jews never become enthusiastic about Zionism. Without American Jews having served in the US military during WWII (since in Gurock’s alternate history the US never enters the war), they never fully enter American society and stay on the margins due to social anti-Semitism carried over from earlier decades of the 20th century.
Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald, author of the recently published “Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People” told The Times of Israel he believes doing counterfactual history like this is worthwhile, but with limits. Wald’s book, while not focused on speculative history, does has a chapter on the impact of fortune and chance events on history.
When asked what he thought the Jewish world would be like today had the Holocaust not happened, Wald answered that he was quite sure the State of Israel would not have been created. (In Gurock’s book, Israel exists, but it is less powerful and less allied to the US as is in reality).
“There would be no State of Israel, only a strong Jewish community in the Land of Israel,” Wald said. “I’m a Zionist, so it is not easy for me to say that.”
According to Wald, in the absence of the Holocaust, there would have been only about 100,000 Jewish refugees after WWII. The Bundists would have been the strongest faction among the Jews, but the Zionists would have still pushed for a Jewish state, which Wald said might have been established eventually. He also posited that there would be more anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe today than there actually is, and that the global distribution of Jews (which he estimates would have reached 28-32 million by now) would have been much different from what it is today, with Spanish possibly being spoken by the majority of Jews.
While historians look back in history to understand what happened (or in the case of counterfactual history, what did not, or could have, happened) Gurock said the ultimate purpose of “The Holocaust Averted” is to get American Jews to think about their present and future.
“The book teaches important lessons about the post-war and contemporary Jewish condition. It emphasizes what WWII meant for Jewish empowerment and Jewish activism,” he said.
“No matter what anyone may think about [US President] Obama’s relations with Israel, there has never been an explicitly anti-Zionist US president. We’ve never faced the challenge of supporting Israel as outsiders in America,” he added.
The America presented in Gurock’s alternate history is a non-pluralistic one. It’s an America in which the price of acceptance is to give up one’s Jewishness.
“The challenge for American Jews now is not the survival of Jews, but rather the survival of Judaism,” Gurock said 70 years after the end of the Holocaust.
“In real life, you have a choice of affirming your Jewishness in an America that accepts you, or of discarding it.”