S.F. Yom HaShoah event to recall 1943 anti-Nazi rally

On June 17, 1943, more than 10,000 people converged on San Francisco's Civic Auditorium to hear Eddie Cantor plead the case for Europe's imperiled Jews.

"You don't hate all ministers because one ran away with the choir leader. You must judge each person individually," the legendary vaudeville entertainer said.

If his words weren't exactly a clarion call to save the Jews, Cantor's tone exemplified the times, according to William "Ze'ev" Brinner, one of the organizers of that rally.

"Eddie Cantor was sort of apologizing for his Jewishness," Brinner said. "He was asking people to be nice to us, even though some Jews weren't that likable."

Nearly 60 years later, Brinner will be one of the featured speakers at San Francisco's main event to mark Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley will reflect back on the long-ago rally and other pieces of local history at Monday evening's event, called "The Holocaust and Its Aftermath: San Francisco Responses from 1943 to the Present."

Sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Holocaust Center of Northern California, it will take place at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

The event will also feature the Rev. Cecil Williams of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church and California Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco). Shelley will read the address his father, then-state Sen. John Shelley, delivered at the 1943 rally, calling on the government to aid Jewish refugees.

Of all the speakers at that rally, Brinner, then an 18-year-old member of a Zionist youth group, found the most inspiration in a non-Jew from Germany.

Famed author Thomas Mann told the throng that although "the infection of anti-Semitism is everywhere…the Jews of Europe are the soil for genius."

In Brinner's recollection, however, Cantor wasn't alone in taking a conciliatory approach. Congregation Emanu-El, for instance, was one of the few local synagogues not represented at the 1943 event.

"It was clear that certain elements in the Jewish community would not participate," Brinner said. "There was a lot of tension between leftist elements in the Jewish community and the more conservative elements."

Brinner ticked off a list of the "leftist elements" present at the event, including the AFL-CIO, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Pioneer Women of Palestine.

Still, Congregations Sherith Israel, Beth Israel and Beth Sholom had a presence there, as did both black and white clergy from local Protestant churches.

Considering Emanu-El Rabbi Irving Reichert's work on behalf of Europe's Jewry, as well as his association with progressive causes, it might seem odd that one of the Bay Area's most prominent congregations had no official representation at the rally.

The reason, Brinner said, was that the event was also a forum for Zionism, a lightning-rod topic in the Bay Area Jewish community of the 1940s.

"There were a lot of issues about 'dual loyalty' in those days," Brinner said. "It was almost as if you couldn't be both publicly Jewish and American at the same time."

Despite Emanu-El's absence, Brinner recalls the event as an enormous success for two reasons: It became an overt display of Jewish pride, exemplified by the singing of "Hatikvah" (to which Cantor, among others, objected). It also served as an important conduit of information.

"Only the upper echelons in the Jewish community really knew what was going on in Europe at the time," Brinner said. The news of mass killings "really didn't trickle down into the rest of the community until about two months before the rally."

Brinner, too, had been in the dark.

"It was a stunning blow when my parents and I found out, and we had many relatives still trapped in Nazi Europe with no way to communicate with them."

The horror further sank in for Brinner in 1944 when purges took place in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where Brinner's relatives lived. Even then, however, Brinner didn't know the fates of those family members. It wasn't until after the war that he learned that none had survived.

Later in 1944, Brinner and several other associates went to Washington, pushing Congress to act on behalf of Europe's Jewry.

The response was underwhelming.

"The American government felt they couldn't do very much on this issue, and Roosevelt wasn't too eager to get involved," Brinner said. "Nobody wanted to see it as a war to save the Jews."