“In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama’s Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust”
Author: Dan J. Puckett
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Price: $44.95 (Hardback) ; $34.95 (Paperback)
Dan Puckett, who teaches history at Troy University, has published a scholarly history of Jews in Alabama, not covering all aspects from 1795 till now, but focusing on the run-up to WWII, escapees, Naziism and the war itself, displaced persons, and Zionism.
Those already interested in Jewish history will be his first readers, but “In the Shadow of Hitler” is clearly written as well as extensively documented and those unfamiliar with Jewish Alabama history will learn more than they anticipated.
To begin with, Jews have always constituted a sliver of the population: in 1935, in Alabama, there were 12,000, less than one percent. There were 214,000 Jews in the entire South, compared with 2 million in New York City. Most Jewish immigrants, whether from Germany or Eastern Europe, have preferred to remain in the northeast, especially New York City.
The first and most significant populations of Jews in Alabama have always been in Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile, with smaller congregations in Selma, Dothan and Gadsden.
Puckett discusses in detail the relationship of Jews to the greater community, especially the question of anti-Semitism, which turns out to be rather complex. Puckett gives some horrific examples stemming not from the KKK but from Roman Catholic or Baptist publications and propaganda.
Conventional press outlets, that is, newspapers, rarely printed anti-Semitic material. But the religious press was a different matter. Both the “Alabama Baptist” and “Catholic Week” perpetuated the stereotype of Jews as “money-lending Shylocks.” After Reverend Charles F. Leek, pastor of the Highland Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, visited Germany in 1934 he wrote that Hitlerism was, “for Germany a safe step in the right direction” and that “the Jewish religion has ceased to be the religion of God, since it refused to accept Jesus.” L.L. Gwaltney, writing in the “Alabama Baptist,” covered much of the same territory.
The Alabama congressional delegation, led by the Bankhead family, was supportive of Jewish interests and, oddly enough, the Alabama legislature was the first in the country to declare itself in favor of an independent Jewish state, in 1943.
This was partly a humanitarian gesture but also may have reflected millennialism, the fundamentalist idea that “the establishment of a New Israel” was essential to fulfill “Biblical prophesy” and enable “The Second Coming of Christ.”
On the other hand, “eighty percent of Southern Baptists” when polled believed that “Jews can never be forgiven for what they did to Jesus, until they accept Him as their True Savior.”
The Klan, it seems, was so obsessed with Jim Crow laws, segregation and white supremacy that Jews were not normally their target. When the Klan expanded their circle of hate it was likely to focus on Catholics.
Puckett does mention that Jewish lawyers, especially in a Klan town like Birmingham, complained of difficulty getting fair treatment from judges.
During the Depression, Alabama Jews, who tended to be independent businessmen, were not as hard hit as the general population, with a low percentage needing relief.
A major question for Puckett and other historians of Jewry in America is the effect of regionalism on Judaism. In Alabama the effect was powerful. Most Jews in Alabama did their best to be Southerners, to fit in. Some adopted attitudes of white supremacy, while many recognized the racial injustice but were reluctant to draw attention by agitating for black civil rights. Their own situation could change practically overnight , which had been dramatically proven in Alabama when in 1931 the Scottsboro boys were defended by a contingent of New York City communist lawyers who were Jewish. Suddenly, to a segment of the Alabama white population, “Jew” equaled “communist.”
Fitting in was especially the watchword of Reform congregations, assimilationists, mainly of German descent. One Montgomery rabbi famously said, “I’m a Caucasian by race, I’m an American by nationality, and my faith is Judaism.” Reform Jews were less likely to support Zionism—the creation of Israel—not wanting to appear divided in their patriotism.
The Orthodox congregations, mainly from Eastern Europe, were less concerned with assimilation, more likely to keep kosher, and saw Judaism as more encompassing: historical, racial and national.
This divide was surprisingly large, and took odd shapes. In Birmingham, where Jews were not allowed membership in the Birmingham Country Club, Reform Jews founded the Hillcrest Club; largely excluded there, Eastern European Jews founded the Fairmont Club. In Mobile, Reform Jews had their own Mardi Gras society, a bit of a religious irony if you think about it.
There were strong efforts from all corners to find homes and jobs for Jewish refugees in the 30’s and again after WWII, but unsurprisingly, these refugees and Displaced Persons were often not happy in small towns where there were no other Jews, often moving to the city or even to the North.
As one would expect, WWII and the widespread knowledge of the Holocaust created more unity. Reform and Orthodox worked together to help displaced persons and to support Palestine as a refuge and then Israel as a Jewish state. Generally speaking Alabama Jews felt more unified and more Jewish.
But even then what Puckett calls “cognitive dissonance” on race was widespread. Although Alabamians most passionately loathed the Nazis with their theory of Aryan supremacy, Jew and gentile alike “failed, or in some cases refused, to see” the parallels to the culture of white supremacy all around them. “African-Americans, however, clearly recognized the similarities between Nazi racism and Jim Crow.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.