In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama's Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust, by Dan J. Puckett. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014. xiv + 326 pp.
Dan Puckett said he had planned to write a book that "described how Nazism, war, and the Holocaust affected African American demands for civil rights "-a book worth waiting for if it turns out to be half as edifying as the one he wrote first, this meticulously researched and carefully hewn study of Alabama Jews in the 1930s and 1940s (ix). In this micro-history of a Jewish minority's struggle for normalcy with universal implications, Puckett shows how the shadow of the madman in the title grows larger over time.
In 1930, the Jewish population of Alabama peaked at 13,000, out of a total of 2.6 million (compared to 9,000 today, out of nearly 5 million). Most Jews lived in the three main cities--Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile--and a few important commercial hubs, including Selma, Dothan, and Gadsden, though Jewish households could be found in every settlement big enough to support a store. In the cities, older families of Central European origin had drifted into Reform Judaism and made every effort to assimilate into local society. Reform congregations adhered to the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, seeing themselves as "no longer a nation but a religious community" that never expected "a return to Palestine" (75). Newer arrivals--before 1933--were more likely to come from Russia and Poland. They largely clung to Orthodoxy and to the dream of Zionism. No matter how Jews thought of themselves, however, to their fundamentalist Protestant neighbors they were simultaneously Christ-killers and the people of the book, "chosen" for a purpose yet to be realized in history.
They were also white people in a land where the problem was the Negro and not the Jew. Jews were tolerated so long as they behaved like gentiles and did not criticize the racial order. In the years just prior to World War II, Alabama Jews and non-Jews alike "failed to recognize the similarity between the persecution of Jews in Germany ... and the situation of African Americans in the Jim Crow South" (7). Was this a failure of courage on the part of people who knew better? Or did Jews genuinely accept the dictums of racial supremacy? The question hovers over the pre-war, wartime, and post-war years, as most Jews were eerily silent when it came to advocating for change.
After the Nazis began murdering Jews, the white press...