By Helen Epstein
This biography of Lucy S. Dawidowicz performs the invaluable function of gathering relevant documents and drafting a narrative that rescues a fascinating historian from oblivion. But it does not add much to the history of the New York intellectuals.
From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History by Nancy Sinkoff. Wayne State University Press, 538 pp., $34.99.
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There were several reasons I wanted to read a biography of historian and public intellectual Lucy S. Dawidowicz (1915-1990). First, From Left to Right is yet another piece of the extensive feminist project of writing overlooked women back into history. Set mainly in 20th-century Manhattan among the New York Jews who then dominated its intellectual life, From Left to Right foregrounds a wren against a background of peacocks such as Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz — all male, with the notable exceptions of the formidable Hannah Arendt and Diana Trilling.
I was also interested in many particular facets of Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s life. As a girl, Lucy Schildkret was a graduate, like Cynthia Ozick and Hortense Calisher (and later Elena Kagan and Avril Haines), of Hunter College High School — the only American public school for intellectually gifted girls. After school, she pursued a Yiddish-language education at the secular nonpolitically-affiliated Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. She graduated from Hunter College in 1936 and began a Master’s program in English literature at Columbia University, but dropped out after two weeks. She eventually obtained a Master’s in history but not a PhD.
Like many other intellectually gifted women of her generation, Dawidowicz would spend far too many years — the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s — working out of public view as a secretary, translator, or researcher for men whose publications rarely acknowledged her in print. Finally, in 1967, at the age of 52, she published her own book, a massive anthology of primary sources titled The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, and was hired to teach at Yeshiva University’s all-female Stern College, where she created one of the first courses in what is now called Holocaust Studies.
Professor Sinkoff, an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, has written a dutiful rather than animated biography. She does not seem too curious about the childhood roots of Dawidowicz’s unusual attraction to Yiddish and to eastern European Jewish history. She does not delve into the particulars of the Schildkrets’ own eastern European Jewish background or their family dynamics. While she names and identifies a few significant influential figures among the future historian’s Yiddish-speaking mentors, she skims over their interactions with Dawidowicz. She doesn’t report on how Dawidowicz was similar to or different from her Hunter classmates — or why, unlike the vast majority of Jews of her assimilating generation, she delighted in using a Yiddish typewriter. Neither does she explain to my satisfaction why, in the summer of 1938, Dawidowicz became one of the rare Jews traveling to rather than away from Poland.
The reason was that, in 1938, she took an internship to work at YIVO, theYidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, often translated as Yiddish Scientific Institute, located in Vilna, known as the “Jerusalem of the North.” The school was founded in 1925 as an eastern European counterpart to the German-Jewish school of historiography Wissenschaft des Judentums. Its founders were more interested in Yiddish ethnography and folklore than in medieval Hebrew literature, and were avid fans of the social history pioneered by Simon Dubnow. One of YIVO’s founders was philologist Max Weinreich, who would play a major role in Dawidowicz’s life.
In 1938, YIVO was small. As a 23-year-old intern, Dawidowicz lived with members of the local Jewish community, worked on her master’s project about the history of the Yiddish press in England, typed and translated correspondence, documents, and books into English, and soaked up the ambiance of prewar Vilna. In the Ashkenazic Jewish world, Litvaks – the Polish/Lithuanian Jews of Vilna – were regarded as cold, strict and rigorous Talmud scholars, as opposed to the warm, spiritual, and charismatic Chassidim. In her impressionable 20s, Dawidowicz soaked up their approach to scholarship before the German invasion of Poland cut short her internship in 1939.
Weinreich fled Vilna too, and rejoined YIVO’s New York branch, where he hired Dawidowicz as his secretary. This put her in the middle of one of “the earliest scholarly efforts on U.S. soil to analyze the fate of the Jews under German occupation” and, during the war years, deepened her early identification with eastern European Jewish culture. But after six years working with Weinreich, Sinkoff suggests that the 31-year-old Dawidowicz was fed up with low pay and a patriarchal office environment. In the summer of 1946, she sailed back to Europe to work with Jews in the postwar Displaced Persons camps in the US occupied zones of Germany and Austria.
This period in her life seemed fascinating to me, but the details, in Sinkoff’s often lackluster telling, are fuzzy. At some point, her relationship with her mentor Max Weinreich broke down; at another, she became involved with her future husband, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor named Szymon Dawidowicz; at another, she returned to Columbia, switched from literature to history, and with the help of her new advisor, historian Salo Baron, applied for a job in occupied Germany with the Joint Distribution Committee. Although these turning points seem key, Sinkoff leaves them largely unexamined, preferring, as she did with YIVO, to describe the organization more than the woman.
The Joint Distribution Committee was, in 1946, a very proactive Jewish relief organization that brought the bilingual Dawidowicz into direct contact with survivors of the eastern European Jewish world she had lived in before the war. She befriended several of these now “displaced persons” as she provided thousands of them with educational and cultural supplies (from paper and pencils to scripts for dramatic clubs). She rescued and catalogued looted and orphaned books and Jewish cultural property (including some from the YIVO archives that she had worked on in Vilna). She identified promising young DPs and dispensed scholarships that enabled them to attend European universities. She sometimes adjudicated competing, life-changing, claims. Would a young woman be enabled to pursue medical school? Would an important library become the property of the Soviet Union, Poland, England, the United States, or Mandatory Palestine? This work, Sinkoff writes, “intensified her identification with Europe’s vanished communities, while also revealing her distinctiveness as an American Jew of eastern European origin.”
When her contract ended in December of 1947, Lucy Schildkret returned to New York and married Syzmon Dawidowicz. Sinkoff writes almost nothing about him, his background, or their relationship — just that they couldn’t live on his salary. Dawidowicz managed to find a job translating from the Yiddish for prominent journalist John Hersey, then writing his novel The Wall.
It was at this juncture — about 100 pages into this biography — that my impatience with the author and her editor boiled over. Sinkoff reportedly mined 45 archives, but fails to synthesize and organize that extensive research into a compelling narrative. She seems to be incurious or hesitant to probe into what made her unusual subject tick. Dawidowicz was now 33, and I still had little sense of what she was like. I assumed from the facts that she was spunky — not someone who simply fell into one job after another. If so, why? Did she alienate her employers? Did she stay in touch and “network” with her old classmates? Did this high school literata dream of becoming a writer? What did she read? And what did she think of Hersey’s work of fictionalizing the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — something I would assume she had opinions about.
While working for Hersey, Dawidowicz applied for a secretarial job at yet another Jewish organization. The American Jewish Committee, publisher of Commentary magazine, was an early think tank founded by German Jewish immigrants and their sons. She began work there in 1949 and stayed for two decades. “Female, untrained, without academic pedigree, and unconnected socially and financially,” Sinkoff writes, Dawidowicz seems to have had no other options. But since the author does not provide context — employment bias against women or anti-Semitism in the workplace (or how her peers were faring in that environment) — I wondered how personal factors were at play.
Once Dawidowicz is ensconced at the AJC, the biography relies more on the woman’s own writing to track her subject’s thinking. The language of the AJC was English; its point of view, emphatically American. Although it, too, was run entirely by men, they offered Dawidowicz far more opportunities than her previous employers. Although Sinkoff does not delve below the surface here either, she writes that Dawidowicz seemed to have hit it off with her bosses, especially Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. During her time at the AJC, she finally finished her Master’s degree in history at Columbia, and became a valued researcher, writer, and speechwriter for her employers.
It was at the AJC that Dawidowicz’s move from liberal to conservative, along with the institution, became clearly discernible. Sinkoff provides a comprehensive view of her memos and backgrounders on Communism and the Soviet Union; separation of church and state and the place of religion in American society; Negro-Jewish relations; the effect of decolonization in the Third World on Israel; and the anti-Semitism she saw developing everywhere.
Unlike YIVO, the AJC defined Jews as a religious — not a national — group, a position that, Sinkoff writes, “married harmoniously with Cold War liberalism’s affirmation of religion as a bulwark against the compulsory atheism of Communism. Liberal Catholics and Protestants welcomed Jews as an equal partner in the postwar construction of the Judeo-Christian tradition, viewing it as a fundamental component of the American democratic ethos.” She wrote about first amendment issues, public school curricula, textbooks, and holiday observance in the public sphere — issues that remain controversial today.
The Cold War, whose beginnings Dawidowicz had seen firsthand in occupied Europe, remained the backdrop to Dawidowicz’s time at the AJC. By 1950, she viewed Stalinism in the same unforgiving light as Nazism and was less concerned by McCarthyism in the US than by Soviet influence in its eastern European satellites, particularly as evidenced in European show trials. She was especially concerned by what she saw as the postwar rise of anti-Semitism everywhere. About the Rosenberg Case, she wrote: “The U.S. government was not anti-Semitic; the guilty conviction of the Rosenbergs was deserved; and their punishment befitted the crime.” “They were unrepentant,” she believed, “not because they were innocent but because they desired to become communist martyrs.”
In the US, Sinkoff writes, Dawidowicz anticipated the societal developments of a decade later by her extensive research and analysis of the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities and the effects of that migration on housing, public schools and universities, and Jewish-Negro relations. She also paid close attention to the civil rights movement in the American South, to the involvement of Jews as different as Abraham Heschel and the murdered Michael Schwerner in its ranks, and to the anti-Semitism she identified as growing in its radical sectors.
Throughout, Dawidowicz was gathering materials for her first major book The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. Published in 1967, it is a compendium of primary sources, many autobiographical, assembled and edited very much in the tradition of prewar YIVO historiographers. She paid attention to selecting writing that reflected different times and places, as well as class and education. The volume included not only writing by rabbis and Hasidic masters, male poets, visual artists, and revolutionaries, but writing by women. “The work earned her instant acclaim among the New York intellectuals and the New York literary public writ large,” Sinkoff writes. “The book’s appearance in 1967 was perfectly tied to cultural and political shifts in American and Jewish culture, including the emergence of the New Left, the growth of the Black Power movement, and the victory of the Israeli army in the Six-Day War, which helped give rise to ethnic politics. In this fraught climate, the East European past and the Holocaust came increasingly to be seen as critical to Jewish identity, The Golden Tradition was pivotal to its construction.”
The success of her anthology resulted in Dawidowicz, at age 52, finally being offered an academic job. At Yeshiva University, she established one of the first courses on the Holocaust and, claiming that there was no textbook, was determined to write one from what she termed “the victims’ perspective.” In fact, there was no lack of good survivor memoirs to choose from — she herself gave her students an 11-page bibliography, according to a footnote. Moreover, a doorstopper of a textbook had been published in 1968 by Gratz College historian Nora Levin. Dawidowicz alleged “the scarcity of solid scholarship” in Levin’s The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, and argued that what the field needed was “a good, popular narrative history that is intelligibly set in a conceptual framework and is written with more literary and intellectual discipline than Miss Levin musters.” This is one of the few episodes in which Sinkoff shows her subject in action — and it offers some insight into her personality and MO.
Dawidowicz soon had a contract to write that book with prominent editor Aaron Asher. It became The War Against the Jews, published in 1975, a general history that took on what she had called Levin’s “amateurish” work. It became her most famous work, though the study was in its own turn scorned as “amateurish” by the then small, sharp-tongued group of Holocaust historiographers — of which there would over the next few decades be hundreds more all over the world. Dawidowicz took on not only Levin’s The Holocaust but Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil of 1963 and historian Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961. Both these writers had focused not on the Nazi perpetrators but on the Jewish response to them.
Still in print and still used as a college text, The War Against the Jews made the phrase “the war against the Jews” synonymous with what is now called Holocaust consciousness. Dawidowicz always viewed it as a unique event to be considered apart from other genocides. Her account, which insisted on the catastrophe’s uniqueness, became part of the “intentionalist” school of Holocaust historiography. This approach identifies Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism as the driving force behind the Holocaust, as opposed to the “functionalist” school, which argues that the Final Solution was not only a product of one man’s ideological fervor but rather the evolutionary product of competing Nazi bureaucracies.
Dawidowicz positioned herself against sentimental, less-than-rigorous historiography that romanticized Jewish resistance, but also against Hilberg and Arendt, who saw Jewish cooperation and collaboration in their own destruction. She makes the point succinctly in one of her footnotes, “Miss Arendt’s penchant for grand philosophic schemata flourishes on her disdain for historical evidence.”
Dawidowicz’s identification with the Jews of eastern Europe determined her response to the social and political developments of the rest of the 20th century in the United States. She became increasingly alarmed by anti-Semitism on the Left, particularly by anti-Zionism in the Third World, among Black nationalists, and among members of the New Left. She mistrusted the counterculture, feminism, as well as all New Age movements, especially when they made inroads into the Jewish community. She resigned from the US Holocaust Commission in 1978, primarily over the issue of memorializing other groups — Poles, Roma, homosexuals — targeted by Nazism. “To be sure,” she wrote, “since time immemorial, human beings have killed one another for spoil, land, or power, but never before had one people denied another people the fundamental right to live. This is the uniqueness of the Holocaust.” She refused to sign the Commission’s report to establish what is now the US Holocaust museum, instead writing “NO” in red pencil and resigning. In the Appendix to From Left to Right, I found a letter Dawidowicz had written to Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal in 1978, after he had referred to 11 million Nazi victims rather than to six million Jews. “Could you specify for me who are the other five million? How did you, or the source you quote, arrive at that particular figure?”
Dawidowicz lived until the end of 1990. Throughout the ’80s, as the Holocaust became more and more universalized and commercialized in the United States and around the world, as well as more intensively researched in the academy, Dawidowicz struck out in new directions, including researching a major study of American Jewry. She began to regularly attend orthodox Jewish religious services, and she became steadily more conservative. Dawidowicz’s uncompromising allegiance to Jewish survival made her a fierce supporter of Israel and her rejection of any criticism of its government put an end to several of her long-term friendships – including one with Lore Segal, an author whose take on Dawidowicz, like the perspectives of other, more politically congenial friends, such as Ruth Wisse and Cynthia Ozick, would have enhanced this biography in this respect as well as in many others.
In writing From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and The Politics of Jewish History, I think Sinkoff bit off far more than she could chew. Her biography performs the invaluable function of gathering relevant documents and drafting a narrative that rescues a fascinating historian from oblivion. It does not add much to the history of the New York intellectuals. I hope some young writer will be inspired to study this volume and then bring Dawidowicz to life in print.