Professor David S. Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews, the definitive study of America’s response to the Holocaust, died March 14, in his home in Amherst, Massachusetts, after a lengthy illness. He was 89.
“David was a brilliant scholar, a gifted speaker, an exceptional teacher, and a devoted friend. But above all, he was a person of extraordinarily fine character – a true ‘mensch’,” said Dr. Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a research and education institute based in Washington, D.C. that was established in 2003 to carry on Wyman’s scholarship, through educational programs, research, and publications focusing on the history of America’s response to the Holocaust.
The achievement of which Wyman was most proud, said Medoff, was “the fact that The Abandonment of the Jews contributed directly to the rescue of more than 800 Ethiopian Jewish refugees.”
The refugees were left stranded and starving along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border in early 1985, when an Israeli airlift operation was interrupted. Jewish activists, together with Congressman John Miller, gave copies of The Abandonment of the Jews to Vice President George H.W. Bush and his aides, pleading with them to “do now what we didn’t do then.” As a result, the U.S. sent a fleet of C-130 Hercules transport planes to rescue the refugees and bring them to Israel.
David S. Wyman, the grandson of two Protestant ministers, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1929, and raised in Auburndale, Massachusetts. He held a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. From 1966 until his retirement in 1991, he taught at UMass, Amherst, where he was a professor of history and twice served as chairman of the Judaic studies program.
His first book was the critically-acclaimed Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 (1968). He spent the next 15 years researching and writing the sequel, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (1984).
Wyman often spoke about how difficult it was for him, as a Christian, to be confronted with the evidence of the meager response by American Christians to news of the Holocaust; sometimes he “cried for days” and had to take a break from his research.
Prior to the publication of The Abandonment of the Jews, the widespread assumption among the American public was that there was little or nothing the Roosevelt administration could have done to save Jews from the Holocaust. Wyman’s research demonstrated that there were, in fact, many ways the U.S. could have aided European Jewish refugees, without interfering with the war effort or undermining America’s immigration laws. He documented how President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his State Department suppressed news about the Holocaust and ignored opportunities to rescue refugees.
The Abandonment of the Jews quickly rose to the New York Times best-seller list, and reviewers were nearly unanimous in their acclaim. Prof. Hasia Diner wrote that Abandonment “systematically demolishes often repeated excuses for inaction.”
The Abandonment of the Jews won the Bernath Prize of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Saloutos Award of the Immigration History Society, the Ansfield-Wolf Award, and the National Jewish Book Award, among other accolades.
Twice in 1985, Wyman was invited to address groups of members of Congress. U.S. Senator Paul Simon (D-Illinois) devoted an installment of his weekly syndicated column to The Abandonment of the Jews, which he characterized as “one of the most powerful books I have ever read.”
The role that The Abandonment of the Jews played in the 1985 U.S. airlift of more than 800 Ethiopian Jews was widely acknowledged in the news media at the time. Wolf Blitzer, who was the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, wrote: “Today’s direct and very active cooperation by the U.S. government in helping to rescue Ethiopian Jews is in marked contrast to the documented abandonment of European Jewish refugees before and during World War II … [which has been] well-documented in David S. Wyman’s recently published book, The Abandonment of the Jews.”
Vice President Bush subsequently sent Wyman a handwritten note of thanks for inspiring the rescue mission.
Prof. Wyman was also the coauthor, with Rafael Medoff, of A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust; editor of America and the Holocaust; and editor of The World Reacts to the Holocaust. Most recently, he contributed a chapter to Medoff’s 2018 book, Too Little and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.
Prof. Wyman’s wife, Midge, who assisted him in his scholarly work, passed away in 2003. He is survived by his children, Teresa and Jim, and their families.