Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

J.D. Salinger and the Holocaust

April 27, 2014 12:50 am 0 comments

JD Salinger in 1950. Photo: Wikipedia.

JNS.orgJewish author J.D. Salinger remains mysterious even in death. Yet some new light may soon be shed on the author of “The Catcher in the Rye” and his experiences as a soldier during World War II.

Following last year’s release of director Shane Salerno’s documentary film “Salinger,” the reclusive author is set for a posthumous second act in the literary world. Between 2015 and 2020, some of Salinger’s unpublished works will be published in irregular installments.

For help with his book that came out during the same month as the film did in September 2013, Salerno contacted Robert Abzug, director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies and Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Abzug said Salerno was moved by “Inside the Vicious Heart,” his book that recounts and interprets the liberation of Nazi concentration camps through the eyes of American soldiers like Salinger (though Salinger doesn’t appear in the book). Azbug would become an adviser to Salerno’s book.

“What I know about Salinger’s Jewish background is what everyone who has written about it knows,” Abzug told JNS.org. “His father was Jewish, [his] mother was Catholic but changed her name to Miriam, and Salinger was bar mitzvahed. He also grew up in a highly Jewish milieu in New York. The best account I have seen is in Kenneth Slawenski’s biography.”

That biography, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” won the 2012 Humanities Book Award.

“His mother was born Roman Catholic, but after speaking to friends of hers, she never considered herself, after marrying Salinger’s father, anything but Jewish,” Slawenski, who is also the creator of the Salinger-focused website DeadCaulfields.com, told JNS.org. “Sol was head of the New York division of J.S. Hoffman & Company, an importer of European cheeses and meats. The company was run out of Chicago and they were cooking the books, especially after the war broke out in Europe. A large amount of the cheeses and meats they imported were from Poland, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. They were fudging the books and the cheeses themselves. They were accused of putting holes in American cheeses and passing them off as Swiss cheeses.”

What effect did this have on Jerome (Jerry) David Salinger?

“The biggest wedge between him and his father was a philosophical one,” Slawenski said. “Salinger’s father was totally devoted to business. He became the opposite of Salinger’s values. Jerry was very unmaterialistic and he learned that from watching his father. He became the opposite of his father. When they were accused of fudging the books, it was an ‘aha’ moment, as if all of this reaffirmed of his father that he was too materialistic.”

Abzug said there is no question that Salinger encountered the concentration camps as a Jew, not simply as an American soldier.

“I think the Jewish aspect of Salinger is as interesting after the war in his move toward Zen Buddhism,” Abzug said. “It was a path that numerous Jews took and has now been formalized among ‘JuBus,’ and books written about the natural compatibilities between the two religions. Of course, that is a controversy among Jews, but it isn’t entirely coincidental that Salinger, [Allen] Ginsberg, and numerous other Jewish writers made this move for a variety of reasons.”

According to Slawenski, what happened to Salinger in April 1945 during the Holocaust left an indelible imprint on his psyche.

“On April 23, Salinger and his regiment were in Aalen and Ellwangen, villages recognized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as having contained a sub-camp of Dachau,” Slawenski wrote in his Salinger biography. “In 1992, the 4th Infantry Division was recognized by the U.S. Army as a liberating unit of Nazi concentration camps, and it is evident that Salinger was called upon to take part in the liberation of victims of the Dachau concentration camp system.”

Like so many who encountered such scenes during the war, Salinger never spoke directly of his experiences, and it is not known for sure exactly what his intelligence duties demanded of him in these places. The sub-camps of Dachau liberated by Salinger’s division were Horgau-Pfersee, Aalen, Ellwagen, Haunstetten, Turkenfald, and Wolfrathausen.”

Slawenski called Salinger one of the most popular and mysterious figures in American literary history, someone who eluded fans and journalists for most of his life. His biography includes accounts of Salinger’s first broken heart—after Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, left him—and the devastating World War II service that haunted him forever. Slawenski also covers the author’s early writing successes, his dramatic encounters with luminaries from Ernest Hemingway to Elia Kazan, his office intrigues with famous New Yorker editors, and the stunning triumph of “The Catcher in the Rye,” which would both make him world-famous and hasten his retreat into the hills of New Hampshire.

“There’s always a paradox whenever we talk about Salinger,” Slawenski said. “Before he went off to war, he was enormously ambitious. In his early twenties he believed he would write the great American novel.”

In Shane Salerno’s 2013 book “Salinger,” which is based on Salerno’s documentary, co-author David Shields writes that J.D. was conflicted about being half-Jewish, not because of his beliefs, but because he was in a difficult social position.

“Many people in the 1940s held an open bias against Jews,” Shields writes. “The Ivy League, for instance, restricted the number of Jews they would accept. Being embraced by high society required not just money, education, and connections but also gentile status. As Salinger grew older, he frequently wanted what he claimed to despise: money, interest from Hollywood, the stamp of approval from the Ivy League. The wires got crossed from the very beginning.”

Salinger’s experiences in World War II, Shields says in Salerno’s documentary, represent the ghost in the machine of all the famed author’s stories. Slawenski told JNS.org, “By examining the life of Salinger, with all its sadness and imperfections, together with the messages delivered through his writings, we are charged with the re-evaluation of our own lives, an assessment of our own connections, and the weighing of our own integrity.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →