Oct 26, 2023
With the recent release of the film Oppenheimer, debates on the morality of the atomic bomb and the role of Jews in the development of nuclear arms has reentered popular culture. A dive into the pages of historical Yiddish newspapers from the dawn of the nuclear age reveals the lengths to which American Jews went in their allegiance to the American war effort, as well as the limits of their approbation.
On August 11, 1945, days after the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the immigrant writer Dovid Eynhorn wrote in the Forverts that “There is not one wondrous invention which has brought a needed blessing upon mankind that humanity has not transformed into a curse. 1 1 Dovid Eynhorn, “The Atomic Discovery: Will it Bring Fortune or Misfortune?” Forverts, 11 Aug. 1945.
Eynhorn himself had barely escaped occupied France with his life in 1940, and during the five years that followed the European Yiddish-speaking world of Ashkenazi Jewry had been all but annihilated. Perhaps this informed Eynhorn’s reserved ambivalence at the news of two Japanese cities and their inhabitants being instantly transformed into columns of ash. 2 2 Shifra Kuperman. “Eynhorn, Dovid.” Translated by Carrie Friedman-Cohen. YIVO Encyclopedia of the Jews in Eastern Europe. Accessed 14 December 2021. https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Eynhorn_Dovid This dual reaction – joy at the advent of a new weapon which had the potential to quickly end the war on one hand, tempered with fear at its awesome destructive potential on the other – broadly characterized the reaction of writers in Forverts to the atomic bomb.
As an arbiter for Jewish-American identity, the Forverts communicated to its audience of Yiddish-speaking immigrant families the message that to be American was to support the bomb’s use. Writers in the Forverts presented American military might as divinely inspired and the atomic bomb itself as an instrument of consecrated violence, employing religious vocabulary to mediate their Jewish audience’s understanding of the bomb’s significance. Though the overall position of the Forverts was in favor of the bomb’s use, individual writers such as Dovid Eynhorn voiced deep concerns about the bomb and drew connections between Hiroshima and the Holocaust as they anxiously observed the culpability of science – and, in the case of the bomb, Jewish scientists – in the menagerie of horrors unleashed by World War II. Nevertheless, despite his questioning and reservations, Eynhorn, like other contributors to Forverts, ultimately hewed closely to what would become the American master narrative of the atomic bombs: that the bombs saved lives and ended the war sooner, and that they represented a technologically-enabled triumph over a foe deserving of destruction.
American Jewish Patriotism and the Bomb
Throughout the first two weeks of its coverage of the bomb, the Forverts largely expressed patriotic approval of the bomb’s use, which was part in parcel with the newspapers’ communication of Jewish American political identity. Beginning with its announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima in a front-page story on August 7, 1945, the Forverts coverage highlighted Jewish participation in the Manhattan Project, demonstrating that American patriotism and pride in Jewish accomplishments could go hand-in-hand. 3 3 “Most Powerful Bomb in the World Thrown on Japan, Truman Warns Tokyo.” Forverts. 7 Aug. 1945. Although the article was largely a rendering into Yiddish of the Truman White House’s press release that first announced to the world the existence of the Manhattan Project and the use of the atomic bomb, it included a front-page sub-header and paragraph which emphasized the significance of Jewish-German refugee scientist Leise Meitner’s research to the Manhattan Project’s ultimate success:
Jewish Woman Discovered Secret of Atomic Energy
A Jewish woman from Germany, Leise Meitner, through a scientific article, contributed much to the discovery of the atomic bomb. Mrs. Meitner, who is well-known for her mathematics research, discovered certain facts about the explosion of the element uranium.
Two weeks after her findings and calculations were published, the greatest physics laboratories in America, England, and Germany confirmed that she was right, and with that a ten-year mystery was solved.” 4 4 “Most Powerful Bomb in the World Thrown on Japan, Truman Warns Tokyo.” Forverts. 7 Aug. 1945.
The article’s conclusion on page eight of the paper also mentioned nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, “whose mother was a Jewish woman.” 5 5 Ibid., For a further discussion of American Jews and patriorism during the war, see Deborah Dash Moore, G.I. Jews. Robert Oppenheimer himself, the Jewish Manhattan Project scientist par excellence, appeared in a front-page photo and article on August 8th, describing him as having “. . . received the credit for achieving the use of atomic energy for military purposes.” 6 6 “Jewish Scholars Among Scientists Who Created the Atomic Bomb.” Forverts. 8 Aug. 1945. This strategy of highlighting positive Jewish contributions to the war effort was significant to the ideological message contained in Forverts reporting, an affirmation of Jews — both those accepted as refugees such as Meitner and natural-born citizens such as Oppenheimer — as American patriots who were fundamental to the war effort.
As Forverts writers took to the task of explaining to their readers the complex and unfamiliar scientific principles behind the atomic bomb, their opinions about the morality of the bomb came through in their religiously inflected vocabulary. 7 7 This strategy was not unique to Forverts, and has been previously documented in Anglophone newspapers. See Adrian Bingham. “‘The Monster?’ The British Popular Press and Nuclear Culture, 1945-Early 1960s.” The British Journal for the History of Science,45, no. 4. (Dec. 2012), 609-24., 612 They brought Jewish religious concepts to bear on their understanding of current events. In the August 8 edition of his regular column, Di milkhume – “The War” – author Chaim Liberman drew an explicit connection between the Jews’ giving of the wisdom of Torah to the world and the involvement of Jewish scientists in this new discovery. The column, titled “A brokhe oder a klolleh – A Blessing or a Curse,” tied these events to the week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ro’eh, containing God’s famous exhortation upon the Jewish people to choose between Torah – life – and lawlessness – death.
It’s been thousands of years that little Jewish children said this in kheyder, and that Jewish fathers said this when they read the weekly Shabbos Torah portion. And last week, once again came Parshas Ro’eh, and again Jews said this – only the world did not hear them:
“See, I give for you today a blessing and a curse…”
Only suddenly, yesterday, the sixth of August, 1945, the 27th of Av, 5705, the whole world, in crying voices, through the press and the radio, shouted out to itself in all hearts of hearts, the old Jewish words:
“See, I give for you today a blessing and a curse, the blessing if you will harken God’s commandment, and the curse if you will not harken God’s commandment!”
Liberman, in prophetic and apocalyptic tones, communicated excitement over the new technological possibilities unlocked by atomic energy – the brokhe – and genuine quaking fear that humanity finally was in possession of the power to, quite literally, end civilization – the klolleh. Yet, throughout his article, he emphasized the significance that this knowledge, heretofore only possessed by God, had been given to mankind by Jewish scientists.
America and England have taken the wisdom from these two Jewish children [Meitner and Einstein] and applied to that end their own wisdom and wealth, and now we have it: the immense power of the atom, locked up by seven padlocks since the sheyshes yamey breyshis, [six days of creation] now released! At last it lies in humanity’s hands! 9 9 Ibid.
Just as the Jewish people had been given a choice by God, Liberman stages the Jewish people giving humanity a decision between a brokhe — a utopian Pax Americana enabled by limitless nuclear energy — or a klolleh — apocalyptic global nuclear war. The final line of his column chillingly betrays the dark irony at the heart of his interpretation of events:
Inventions will come, of which one cannot even dream now, all from those smallest, most useful, most selfless particles of God’s world.
And this is the new Jewish gift to mankind, the first gift since mankind exterminated six million Jews. So Jews take revenge.
Liberman’s use of religious vocabulary served to aid readers in interpreting both the power and moral valences of the atomic bomb. Liberman, and other authors, made conscious use of Yiddish’s linguistic components in doing so. The Germanic-derived kraft (קראפט), the Greek energie (ענערגיע), and the Hebrew koyekh (כוח) could all be reasonably translated into English as “power,” but the Hebrew-derived word carried the surplus value of religious connotations related to God’s supranatural power.
In his August 10 article, “The Mighty Uses One Can Expect From The New Atomic Energy,” author L. Hendin speculated about how atomic energy would transform the relationships among firms, individuals, and nations for the better. 10 10 L. Hendin, “The Mighty Uses One Can Expect From the New Atomic Energy.” Forverts, 10 Aug. 1945. “Therefore, you see, we stand on the doorstep of a new life, and one would hope that in the future human intelligence will be used to build a better and more beautiful world.” 11 11 Ibid. His predictions are best described as utopian and wildly optimistic. Yet, in his unique usage of koyekh where elsewhere he referred to atomic power using kraft, he imbued atomic energy with an almost messianic providence: “But if we will be able to obtain all of life’s conveniences from atomic power [koyekh], there will be no reason for rich or poor countries, and struggles between individuals and between nations will disappear.” 12 12 L. Hendin, “The Mighty Uses One Can Expect From the New Atomic Energy.” Forverts, 10 Aug. 1945. This echoes the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” 13 13 “Isaiah” in Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989). Accessed 14 December 2021. https://www.sefaria.org/Isaiah.2.4?lang=bi In his employ of this Biblical parallel, Hendin cast the atomic bomb as the deliverer of the world into an age of peace and harmony in which war will no longer be necessary, suffusing the scientific achievement with divine, messianic connotations.
These examples of highlighting of Jewish contributions to the atomic bomb effort, on the one hand, and interpreting the bomb through Jewish religious vocabulary on the other, went hand in hand with approbation of the use of the bomb itself. An August 18 article by Hillel Rogoff titled, “Should We Have Made Use of the Atomic Bomb” answered its own question with a resounding “yes.” 14 14 Hillel Rogoff, “Should We Have Made Use of the Atomic Bomb?” Forverts, 18 Aug. 1945. Rogoff, who would eventually become chief editor of Forverts from 1951 to 1964, was a prolific writer and consequential voice among the socialist, anti-Communist, and American nationalist editorial staff of Forverts. 15 15 “Harry Rogoff Dies at 88,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1 Dec. 1971. Accessed 15 December 2021. https://www.jta.org/archive/harry-rogoff-dies-at-88 In a rebuttal to “pasifistn un moralistn” who opposed the bomb’s use, he claimed that it was morally justified because the Japanese had already violated international law and because he felt that there was a threat that the Japanese might have carried out a similar attack on the United States if the United States had not preempted it — though we now know that neither Germany nor Japan had anything near the capabilities to produce an atomic bomb, let alone deliver one to American shores.
Ambivalent Approaches to the Bomb
Dovid Eynhorn’s approach to the bomb in the Forverts is more ambivalent. In his article, “The Atomic Discovery – Will it Bring Fortune or Misfortune?” 16 16 Dovid Eynhorn, “The Atomic Discovery: Will It Bring Fortune or Misfortune?” Forverts, 11 Aug. 1945. Eynhorn’s sober and cautious treatment of the new technology stood in stark contrast to Hendin’s untempered optimism and Rogoff’s staunch justification and was a notable outlier among early post-bombing Forverts content in its implicit criticism of the bomb’s use:
In this century of great discoveries alone, humanity has shown itself to be frightfully immoral and criminal. One trembles at the divine powers which have fallen into hands such as these. The American general who described the first test of the bomb in New Mexico is correct. He said that he felt like a heretic for working with such energy, which belongs only to the Almighty. 17 17 It would seem that Eynhorn here meant Gen. Leslie Groves, though I am unable to find the specific quote which he intended to reference.
Humanity’s misfortune over this century demonstrates that science does not progress on a moral trajectory. On the contrary, the further forward science goes, the further the morals of man regress. 18 18 Ibid.
Eynhorn continued, directly refuting Hendin’s scientific optimism with explicitly religious language:
“Dream, dreamer,” says the optimist. “Look into the pink haze which envelops the future and see, such a wonderful time stands ahead of us. Man will be as G-d. [G-d’s] powers will serve man, as only G-d once made use of them. But no! So many years spent dreaming, and every time we awaken, the world has changed for the worse. Nowadays it is very bad, and things cannot become much worse.
And now, today, in the darkest time of human history, they have brought down the sun upon the Earth – but not to brighten, only to bring forth devastation and destruction. 19 19 Dovid Eynhorn, “The Atomic Discovery: Will It Bring Fortune or Misfortune?” Forverts, 11 Aug. 1945.
Though he acknowledged the significance of the new scientific discovery and its potential to transform the world for good, Eynhorn framed the discovery historically alongside other transformative inventions of the twentieth century, which, despite their positive qualities, caused significant destruction and division: “We have seen that man has converted all the wondrous novelties of science to devices of extermination.”
Though the writers in Forverts clearly operated with a common ideological baseline of support for the American war effort and, thus, for the use of the atomic bomb, it is certain that much more varied opinions found expression in the responses of Yiddish-speaking Americans to these events. The subtle heterogeneity of responses in Forverts reflected that variance – albeit this variance appeared only within the ideological bounds set by what Forverts decided was fit to print. Eynhorn’s article, significant for its explicit questioning of the moral dislocation endemic to the discourse of the time, offers a conscious and systemic rejection of the ideologies that drove humanity into the maw of death and destruction from whence the atom bomb emerged. Eynhorn framed his pacifist liberalism as the only hope for the future of mankind as the dust settled on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
. . . If man will not make an end to wars and to hate in general, then he can expect a dark future during which the whole of humanity will disappear. . . .
This is the most important time in which to abolish parties which preach hate, which constantly provoke man’s murderous instinct. All agitators, leaders, big party mouthpieces, liars, swindlers, and gamblers who manufacture their rule. All the fascists, communists, nationalists, who prepare a world for their ambitions through slaughter. Only then, when we are rid of all this filth, will we begin to dream truthfully of a better time in which science will be to us a blessing and not a curse. 21 21 Dovid Eynhorn, “The Atomic Discovery – Will It Bring Fortune or Misfortune?” Forverts, 11 Aug. 1945.
Here, mirroring Liberman’s extended theological metaphor, Eynhorn counters Hendin’s scientific utopianism with his own claims that technological achievement inherently creates not the conditions for utopia but for its opposite, unless humanity intervenes through politics that bring about peace. Eynhorn’s reservations, that such technology might fall “into the hands of an insane murderer like Hitler,” were tempered only by his relief that the weapon was “in the noble and humane hands of an American general, who felt himself to be a profaner when forced to use such a judicious power.” 22 22 Dovid Eynhorn, “The Atomic Discovery – Will It Bring Fortune or Misfortune?” Forverts, 11 Aug. 1945. Eynhorn’s circumspect ambivalence contrasted with, but ultimately yielded to, his American patriotism.
Forverts writers’ utilization of religious language in discussion of the bomb can also be seen in a humor column by the pseudonymous author DerTunkeler published on August 15, in which the narrator, vacationing in the Catskills, encounters a rabbi who discusses the advent of the bomb with him:
One of the vacation-niks, a rabbi, came up to me with jubilation. His doctrine, says he, has won! What is his doctrine? His doctrine is that all miracles from the Lord were created miraculously with only the power of nature. Seemingly, Moyshe rabbenu had in those ancient times the ability to split the atom! With the power of the split atom he split the Sea of Reeds, and with the power of the split atom he broke open the stone with his staff and drew forth water. With the power of the atom, Yehoshua Ben Nun stopped the sun and annihilated the Nazis of those ancient times. 23 23 Der Tunkeler’s rabbi referenced here, respectively, Exodus 15, Exodus 17, and Joshua 10.
[The rabbi] was very pleased with this idea. This Shabbos, he said, he will speak in the synagogue on how the atom is comparable to the Jewish nation. Why exactly the principle of the atom is the basis of this point, this is difficult to crack. In short, the principal component of the Jewish nation is the individual Jew. Consequently, the enemies of the Jews to that end seek to hurt individual Jews in order to split the whole nation. This is why we must all see that every single Jew is protected. 24 24 Der Tunkeler, “Humoreske: The Atom Bomb: A Joke.” Forverts, 15 Aug. 1945
Delivered in a humorous context, this passage gives voice to a significant thread of historical and political interpretation running through much of Forverts’ coverage of these events: that the atomic bomb, and by extension its masters in the American military, represented a historically unprecedented and, in the fresh wake of the khurbn, deeply desired assurance against destruction for the Jewish people. Taken together with Eynhorn’s moral qualms and how they are overcome, it suggests a moral calculus that while the bomb may be immoral in absolute, in a wartime context – and specifically in the context of the destruction of European Jewry – the bomb might be understood as a positive development. Yet this humorous piece undermines this perspective by placing it in the mouth of a foolish rabbi. It pokes fun at a Jewish-centered approach to world events that turns a blind eye to the people whose lives were destroyed by the bomb, and an ironic hopefulness about Jewish resiliency at a moment of mass Jewish destruction. The butt of the joke, the rabbi, is so bound up in his theologizing about the bomb that he turns a blind eye to the realities of its violence.
For those tempted to romanticize or mythologize the political world of our Yiddish-speaking forebears, the articles discussed herein may, in their adherence to the typical narrative regarding the bomb, surprise and dismay. Apocalyptic awe and dark irony notwithstanding, precious little heymishe radicalism or Jewish exceptionalism is to be found. The scientific optimism, the veneration of military power, even the religious reverence with which the bomb was described, all sprung directly from the language of the original White House press release. Until English-speaking reporters were able to visit Hiroshima themselves later in 1945 and 1946, that press release set the tone and narrative for all subsequent discussion of the bomb and its use. Public expression of reservations over the bomb’s use and effects would come later, after the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946 and the eventual development in the 1960s by Gar Aplerovitz of the Revisionist historiography – which argued, influentially though dubiously, that the bomb’s use was strategically unnecessary from a military perspective and used only with the intent of intimidating the Soviet Union diplomatically.
Insofar as “Jewish” discourse in the Yiddish press in the immediate weeks following the destruction of Hiroshima differed from “mainstream” American discussion of the bomb, it was in its emphasis on Jewish participation in the Manhattan project. Discussion of the bomb’s ontological relationship to the recent Holocaust factored as a secondary concern, both as a possible assurance against its repetition – foreshadowing the eventual rationale for the development of Israel’s nuclear arms and broader military-industrial complex – and as a grim illustration of World War II’s inhumanity in the furnaces of Auschwitz and the pits of Babi Yar.
Today, as the forces of fascist revanchism again raise the specter of global war and nuclear horror, the questions of morality in the use and proliferation of these terrible weapons are still an ongoing concern. One prays, as Oppenheimer himself eventually came to hope, that humanity will continue to choose the brokhe rather than the klole.