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 Between 2015 and 2020, some of Salinger’s unpublished works will be published in irregular installments.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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →
  • Analysis Arts and Culture Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    JNS.org – One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera. “Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    JNS.org – Less than five months after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth European basketball title, David Blatt, now the head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, routed his former team in an exhibition game on Sunday, with the Cavaliers dominating Maccabi 107-80 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The 20,562 fans in attendance witnessed Lebron James’s first appearance in a Cavaliers uniform since he left the club in free agency for the Miami Heat four years ago. [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.