February 22, 2020

The ‘Why?’ exchange, part 3: ‘Groups, like individuals, need friends’

Peter Hayes is professor of history and German and Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies Emeritus at Northwestern University and chair of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Professor Hayes received his PhD from Yale University and taught at Northwestern for thirty-six years from 1980 to 2016. He is the author or editor of twelve books, including the prize-winning Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (1987, 2001) and Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World (1991).  

This exchange focuses on Professor Hayes’ new book Why?: Explaining the Holocaust (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017). Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.


Dear Professor Hayes,

In the final section of your book – which you call “Aftermath: What legacies? What lessons?” – you make some pretty controversial assertions about what Jews and other American minorities could learn from the Holocaust:

Lesson Two of the Holocaust for minority groups in America and Jews in particular is: Be self-reliant but not isolationist. That means taking care with two very dangerous and common words nowadays: memory and identity. We tend to glorify both with cries such as “never again” or “never forget” and assertions of our heritage or loyalties before every utterance. But both practices have downsides.…

The history of the Holocaust suggests that minorities run risks when they depend too much on others, since the others generally will be guided by self-interest, but also that cutting oneself off from others poses its own, perhaps equal, dangers. Groups, like individuals, cannot make their ways alone; they need friends.

Now, even mildly suggesting that the Jews’ isolation before the Holocaust was a matter of choice rather than a result of tragic historical circumstances and contingencies, that they somehow “cut themselves off from others,” could easily rub some people the wrong way. Moreover, seeing that the Nazis targeted assimilated Jews just like they targeted shtetl Jews, and that the majority of American Jews are successfully assimilated liberals in American society, the lesson you mention seems a bit in need of further explanation.

I want to ask you to elaborate on this point: how do you think the Holocaust should inform minority attitudes toward isolationism, and Jewish attitudes in particular? What type of mindsets and mistakes are you warning against, and is there anything Jews in America should be doing differently?

Thank you again for your interesting book and for doing this exchange.




Dear Shmuel,

I began my book with a chapter on antisemitism that identified the historical roots of Jews’ isolation and persecution in Christians’ efforts to confine Jews to disdained occupations and locations in order to limit any possibility that Christians might convert to Judaism. As a result, I don’t think anyone reading in good faith can conclude that I was “even mildly” engaged in blaming the victim. Nor do I think a reader of my book can be in any doubt about my view that the persecuting and the persecuted during the Holocaust inhabited completely different moral planes.

That said, indicating that Jews sometimes acted in ways that contributed to or reinforced their isolation may rub some people the wrong way, but challenging preconceptions sometimes comes with the territory of interpreting the past. The historical record suggests that Jewish minorities that preserved conspicuous distinctions of dress and observance, predominantly spoke a different language than their neighbors, and stressed endogamy appeared to stand somewhat apart from those neighbors, and that this apartness undermined the degree of solidarity that they exhibited toward Jews during the Holocaust. Yes, the Germans drew no distinctions, shunning and slaughtering the assimilated and the traditionalist alike (a point to which I referred explicitly), but the German allied or -occupied populations that showed greatest readiness to protect Jews (Bulgaria, Denmark, and Italy) had highly acculturated communities. This was not the only characteristic that distinguished them, as I also mentioned—the communities were relatively small, and the Nazi regime moved against them comparatively late in the war, after Germany’s defeat became likely. But acculturation significantly counteracted German efforts to depict Jews as aliens, let alone as menacing demons, in these places.

Evgeny Finkel’s new book, Ordinary Jews, which appeared shortly after my book, buttresses my analysis through a comparative study of three Eastern European ghettos during the Holocaust, those of Cracow, Bialystok, and Minsk. He concludes that the ability of Jews to “evade” Nazi persecution, i.e., to go into hiding and survive, correlated strongly with the degree of pre-existing “interethnic integration” in each of those locales. The greater it was, the better these individuals’ prospects. Gunnar Paulsson’s study of Jews’ survival in Warsaw (Secret City, 2002) also correlates their success strongly with having cross-cultural ties.

As for the implications for minorities, and Jews in particular, the words I wrote mean exactly what they say: groups, like people, need friends. In multicultural societies, minority groups, like individuals, should cultivate dialogue and alliances; stick up for themselves but try not to take offense too quickly; be willing to take yes for an answer; highlight the common principles upon which everyone’s security and liberty depend; and insist on being treated fairly and with dignity while treating others that way. The risks of behaving otherwise are isolation and abandonment. To be sure, majorities have even greater obligations to act respectfully and with restraint toward minorities because majorities have more power and generally can do more harm; but minorities have obligations, too. A passage by Eva Hoffman, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, toward the end of her book Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, captures much of what I had in mind while writing the paragraphs about which you are asking:

It seems to me what the Polish-Jewish experiment suggests … is that “identity politics” may be inadequate without a sense of solidarity. If we are to live together in multicultural societies, then in addition to cultivating differences, we need a sense of a shared world. This does not preclude the possibility of preserving and even nurturing strong cultural, spiritual, and ethnic identities in the private realm, nor does it suggest collapsing such identities into a universal “human nature.” But if multicultural societies are to remain societies—rather than collections of fragmented, embattled enclaves—then we need a public arena in which we speak not only from and for our particular interests, but as members of a society, from the vantage point of the common good.

I did not have in mind—and I would never presume to give—any additional advice to the richly internally diverse community of American Jews, not least because they seem to have found precisely through that diversity a golden mean between preserving institutions and identity, on the one hand, and becoming integrated and accepting parts of the American family, on the other. That is a great achievement, precedented and paralleled perhaps by the Danish and Italian cases during and after the Holocaust, but still a testimony to both the community and to our country. At least that is the way conditions look to a non-Jewish agnostic who wishes Jews well and deeply appreciates their manifold contributions to American society.