The genre of alternative or counter history — where historians pose tantalizing ‘what if’ questions — is an increasingly fertile one. The Pulitzer-winning author MacKinlay Kantor’s “If the South Had Won the Civil War” (MacMillan) and Jeff Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived” (Penguin Group) are two prime examples. Now, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, comes Yeshiva University professor Jeffrey Gurock’s “The Holocaust Averted” (Rutgers), which imagines an American Jewish community without the Shoah. The Jewish Week spoke with Gurock via email.
Q: How would the American Jewish community have been different had the Holocaust not happened?
A: As a Jew, the horrific destruction of our people during the Shoah — which must be remembered and commemorated — is seared in my consciousness. As a historian, however, I recognize that the years 1941-45, where America fought in WWII, were a turning point in the history of American Jews.
American Jews came out of the war not only angry at what had happened in Europe but also were imbued with a sense of empowerment and that they belonged to America. And they found — over time — that their fellow citizens increasingly accepted them. One of my main points is that without that wartime experience, where they contributed mightily to the effort to defeat Nazism, American Jews would have well remained skittish and marginalized in America. Significantly, the fearful attitude that I envisioned among American Jews would have affected their degree of support towards the rise of the State of Israel, which comes into existence as the American government — worried over the availability of Arab oil — is not overly concerned about the plight of displaced Jews. This scenario serves as a springboard for my readers’ contemplation of the roots and depths of Jewish activism towards Zionism.
What accounts for the popularity of this genre?
Readers and scholars are fascinated by turning points in their lives and in history. Increasingly, academicians use the device of what might have happened as a way of identifying central moments in time and for delving into the actual implications of real events. In my book, at the end of each chapter, I offer a synopsis of what really happened as a teaching mechanism where students can see the close calls that often determine the crucial events in history.
What sources did you draw on to make your conclusions?
I often used the actual statements and proposals of historical actors but changed the results of their arguments and positions. For example, Churchill offered some pro-Zionist ideas for Palestine in the late 1930s as London considered the future of its mandate, which tragically were not followed by the appeasing Chamberlain government. In my book, when the British stand up to Hitler, they follow Churchill’s plan. Also, I use the abundant secondary material on themes like FDR’s decision to run for a third term as a basis for imagining what the 1940 presidential election might have been like. Only in my book, he does not run. By the way, there is a body of Japanese historiography that suggests that Tokyo had almost decided not to bomb Pearl Harbor. In my book, on Dec. 7, 1941, American sailors are sunning themselves on the deck of the USS Arizona..
Were you worried about offending Holocaust survivors, and is there a danger that people will come away thinking that the Holocaust was actually a good thing for American Jews, in terms of their acceptance here?
I would never say that the Shoah was a good thing for American Jews. If anything, my book argues that in real history, greater acceptance brought with it profound issues of identity maintenance, which we grapple with now in the 21st century.
Is there an echo here of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” which presented a WWII counter-history?
I read his novel with great interest when it came out. But my work is informed by history not fiction — and, of course, Roth’s works starts in a very dark place, Nazi victory. I deal with the implications of Hitler’s downfall in 1944.