How did American Jews help their persecuted coreligionists in Europe during the Holocaust? Cecilia Razovsky and the American-Jewish Women’s Rescue Operations in the Second World War by Bat-Ami Zucker (Vallentine Mitchell, $79.95), challenges the conventional scholarly opinion that they did nothing, or too little. Zucker describes in detail the substantial efforts to rescue European Jews undertaken by several American Jewish organizations, particularly the National Committee for Aid to Refugees and Emigrants coming from Germany (NCC) and its successor, the National Refugee Service (NRS)
Zucker draws us to the work of Razovsky, the remarkable activist who served as the executive director of the NCC and head of the Migration Department of the NRS. Zucker also credits the networks of American Jewish women upon whom Razovsky relied. These women helped German-Jewish children emigrate and find homes in the United States; signed affidavits to help European Jews come into the U.S. under the restrictive immigration laws of the 1930s; connected European Jewish scholars with American universities that would provide them with work, and thereby visas; and helped refugee Jews who were interned as “enemy aliens” once they had entered the United States. The efforts of these women — particularly in the face of bureaucratic and political obstacles — were extraordinary, yet they have typically been ignored by historians. Zucker’s book rightfully brings these women to our attention, offering overwhelming scholarly evidence of their hard work and dedication.
Dense with archival detail, the book may not attract a lay audience. Zucker organizes the story around the accomplishments of the NCC and NRS, making the chronology of events a bit confusing. Perhaps most disappointing is that the book focuses on these organizational activities rather than on the individuals working within them. There is only a brief biography of Razovsky in the beginning to anchor our understanding of her ; the book could have been so much richer with more effort to center the narrative on that biography. And there is even less detail about the ordinary women upon whom Razovsky relied: they generally remain nameless and faceless.
Nonetheless, by spotlighting the prodigious activities of women — particularly Cecilia Razovsky — in rescuing Jews from Europe, Bat-Ami Zucker reorients our thinking about American Jews and the Holocaust, and encourages us to explore further the impact of women throughout American Jewish history.
Kirsten Fermaglich is associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Michigan State University.