Most modern conceptions of history America’s involvement in World War II begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and, certainly from a military perspective, that is where the story — our part of the story — opens. Anything that came before that seems consigned to trivia or AP History-level miscellany: the Lend-Lease Act; Americans who fled to Canada in order to fight with the British in 1939 and 1940.
From a social standpoint, though, the war — and with it Germany’s actions against Jews — has a much more complicated prehistory, as far as America is concerned. That there was a substantial part of the population that was resistant to America having anything to do with the war (and the not-so-subtle anti-Semitic undertones to that resistance) is hardly a secret. (Philip Roth’s nightmare fantasia The Plot Against Americadepicts this sentiment in extremis.) We know about the America First movement, the isolationist popularity of Charles Lindbergh, the hateful radio sermons of the Detroit priest Father Coughlin.
Less known, however, is that in February of 1939, twenty thousand members of an organization called the German American Bund — many wearing brown shirts — marched to a rally at Madison Square Garden. Or that Congress and even President Roosevelt flatly refused to make any efforts to allow European refugees to resettle in the United States. Or that The New York Times would not refer to victims of Hitler’s persecution as Jews but as “displaced persons.” Or, as I found most striking while doing research for my novel The Houseguest, a series of full-page advertisements supporting a campaign for a Jewish army to assist in the war effort, appeared in the Times with banner headlines reading “Action, Not Pity — Can Save Millions Now” or “This Is Strictly A Race Against Death.”
The Houseguest takes place shortly before America was violently pulled into World War II. Two of its central characters, an activist named Shmuel Spiro and a young rabbi called Max Hoffman, are to varying degrees involved with the group who was responsible for those ads, the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews. The Committee really did exist: they were Revisionist Zionists, who were inspired by the early Ukrainian Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. (Their story is told in some detail by the historian David Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews.)
Certainly other groups and individuals agitated for any sort of American support for European Jews. Yet there was something about the Committee that I found compelling to a point where they forced their way into my novel’s plot. They weren’t unambiguously heroic: their ranks were filled with members of the Irgun, the militant group that terrorized Palestinians and tried to bomb the British out of Palestine. In a way that only heightened their allure for me, though: not so I could craft an homage to the bombers of the King David Hotel but so that I could capture the chaotic moral landscape of this particular moment in history.
To me, this forgotten group with questionable motives almost perfectly symbolizes the matter of America and its relationship to Hitler’s Jewish victims before Pearl Harbor.
Kim Brooks, the personal essays editor at Salon, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. She has been awarded fellowships by the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Posen Foundation. Her stories have been published in One Story, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and other journals; she has received four honorable mentions in the Best American Short Stories series. Her essays have appeared in Salon, New York, and Buzzfeed. Her memoir Small Animals (Flatiron/Macmillan) is forthcoming in 2017. The Houseguest is her first novel.Setting a Story in the Shell of a Rust Belt Boomtown