The column | Mystery of the missing war years

When you walk into J.’s office, the first things you see are the bound volumes of the newspaper, 114 years’ worth. We started publishing in 1895, but our collection dates back only to 1900, when we were called the Emanu-El and owned by that august Reform synagogue in San Francisco.

The pages of newsprint in the early volumes are yellowed and crumbling, the bindings shot. But leafing through them is such a treat. I particularly love the advertisements — the clothing stores, the delis, the kosher butchers — and the picture they paint of early Bay Area Jewish life.

It’s true, I’m in love with these old books. That’s why I placed them in the front hallway — to be reminded of the long chain that links what we do every day to what came before us. My dream is to raise the funds to digitize all of our old newspapers (J.’s online archive goes back only to 1995).

But one thing frustrates me — the volumes for 1944 and 1945 are missing. The war years! The years when America entered the fight, when Hitler was defeated, when the horrors of the Holocaust were fully revealed.

I’ve always assumed some history buff carried them off. Turns out that might not be what happened.

Last week, Lehrhaus founder and local historian Fred Rosenbaum was in our office. I asked him about the missing books, and he started to chuckle. “What you are missing is the most shameful period in the 165-year history of Jews in the Bay Area,” he said.

He told me about the great rift that existed between the German Jewish elite of San Francisco — the first families, the wealthier folks, centered in Congregation Emanu-El — and the newer arrivals from Russia and Eastern Europe. I knew about the social clash, but I didn’t know how it played out in the pages of our community newspaper.

Rosenbaum tells the entire story in “Cosmopolitans,” his fascinating 2009 history of the Bay Area Jewish community.

While Reform Jews nationwide had a strong anti-Zionist bent, it was particularly pronounced in San Francisco. Leading the charge was Emanu-El Rabbi Irving Reichert, who preached that nationalism was “alien” to Judaism, and that support for Zionism would raise the dangerous specter of dual loyalties. In 1943 Reichert became the head of the San Francisco section of the  American Council for Judaism, a fervently anti-Zionist outfit that had great support locally.

San Francisco’s Jewish community was one of the last in the country to hold a rally in support of the Jews of Europe, doing so only in June 1943, 10 months after the first rallies back East. And few of the leading Jewish families attended. “The community turned its back on the Holocaust and on Zionism, more than any other community in the country,” Rosenbaum told me.

The strongest local voice urging Bay Area Jews to protest the Holocaust was Rabbi Saul White of San Francisco’s Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom. A Polish-born firebrand, White had a regular column in the Emanu-El, which he used to excoriate the city’s “self-appointed and self-perpetuating” German Jewish leadership, whose “innermost wish,” he wrote in 1941, “is to assimilate, to disappear as Jews.” In one 1942 column he attacked the JCC for holding classes in flower arranging “when millions of Jews are being decimated on the European front.”

White’s columns ran for six years, almost to the end of the war, never letting up on their attacks against the city’s Jewish fathers. Finally, in April 1945 — one month before the surrender of Nazi Germany — a group of local machers bought the newspaper and fired both White and the paper’s editor, Sol Silverman, who had given him his bully pulpit. On Jan. 4, 1946, the newspaper was relaunched as the Jewish Community Bulletin.

White, says Rosenbaum, “stayed at Beth Sholom into the 1970s, beloved by his congregation, but he no longer had the public forum he once had in the Emanu-El.” Reichert remained unapologetically anti-Zionist and was fired from Congregation Emanu-El in November 1947 when the partition plan for Palestine was announced. He committed suicide in 1968.

So who stole the war-year volumes? Maybe someone who didn’t want this shameful story remembered.

After our talk, I went to J.’s bound volumes to look up some of White’s op-eds. And that’s when I saw that more are now missing — all the years from 1933 to 1943. Not as much of a backstory here: They most likely disappeared when we moved to a new office space two months ago.

Just more lost history.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. and can be reached at [email protected]


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].