Unlike any other Catholic writer at the time, Dorothy Day saw Adolf Hitler’s emerging policy toward the Jews as a moral problem for Catholics. She saw this while Hitler was still only the chancellor in a multiparty cabinet—two years before he combined the office of chancellor and president to become Führer and almost four years before Germany adopted the Nuremburg Laws that stripped German Jews of their citizenship and human rights. Day’s views are expressed in this previously unknown essay, which lay undetected in a correspondence file in the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University.
The manuscript was submitted for publication in America in November 1933, more than five years before Day’s views on Jewish matters became widely known. The content is noteworthy precisely because of Day’s early conclusion that Hitler represented the foremost religious problem for the Jews.
From Day’s perspective, local events in New York, charged by anti-Semitism on the part of Catholics, were directly related to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. She was appalled by “Catholics speaking over in Brooklyn,” to “cheering crowds,” that “the great danger was the Jew.” She keenly foresaw the dynamic that five years later would lead to the rise of Brooklyn’s powerful Christian Front movement and its quasi-terrorist anti-Semitic plot, which was scuppered only by a spectacular set of arrests in early 1940 by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Day’s warning about how Catholics ought to deal with Hitler rested on two of the main pillars of her faith—scriptural reflection and concern for social justice. Her deep beliefs rested on an apostolic zeal that held out the possibility for all men and women to be fully integrated into the mystical body of Christ.
America’s editor in chief, Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., rejected Day’s article, offering her consolation, advice and further encouragement. Other forces may also have been at play. Parsons might have been put off by Day’s opening paragraph, which spoke approvingly of a worker extolling the sunny side of Communism. Father Parsons later would become known as one of the country’s foremost anti-Communists. In 1931 Pope Pius XI released the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which argued for the rights of workers and labelled Communism a threat to divine law. In addition, American Catholics were becoming more isolationist in the 1930s. Of course, one might suspect masked anti-Semitism on the part of Father Parsons. But there is no evidence to suggest Parsons was in any way anti-Semitic. On the contrary, Father Parsons was a founding member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and remained a leader in Christian-Jewish relations through the 1940s.
Charles Gallagher, S.J., a visiting fellow at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, discovered this manuscript at Marquette University. The text here has been lightly edited.
A Jew came into the office of The Catholic Worker the other day and sat around and read for a while. He nosed through Cahill’s Christian State and condemned it for its anti-Semitism. Then he looked at a missal for a while and hummed through some of the Gregorian plain chant.
“I cannot,” he said, “be a Communist because I believe in God.” And he said it sadly because he believed that the Communists were nearer to social justice in their efforts to bring about a proletarian state than were the believers in God.
When he left he took with him the apocryphal books of the Old Testament and the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila.
People have been calling the office of The Catholic Worker and asking us if we had anything to do with the street meetings which were going on over at Long Island Station in Brooklyn. Our paper was being distributed over there, after rabid anti-Jew speeches. The men who spoke to us over the telephone said that they could find no race antipathies in The Catholic Worker, but they wanted to know what right Jew-baiters had to take over our paper as literature to distribute.
There were three Catholics speaking over in Brooklyn and by appealing to the baser instincts in their audience they were getting a huge crowd, a cheering crowd, which stood around for three hours listening to speakers who pointed out how red-blooded and 100 percent American they were, how filled with intestinal integrity, and how some scum parasites of Europe had come over here and taken over the country. The great danger was the Jew. All evils came from the Jew. Jewish materialism was the cause of all our ills. It was the Jew who brought about the revolution in Russia. It was Jews who ruined Germany. Hitler was merely trying to restore law and order.
We have consistently tried to avoid discussion of European questions in the paper we are getting out. We feel that we can’t take up the subject of Spain, Italy, Germany, Mexico, let alone China. (One time on a bitter cold night last winter I was walking down Eighth Street and there was a cheering Communist parade coming around the corner. On all sides there was hunger and evictions, strikes and lockouts. Millions, fifteen or seventeen millions of men out of work. Forty-five millions dependent upon relief of some kind or another. But the Communists in their world-wide altruistic frenzy were not at that moment engaged in protesting present and near-at-home evils. Their banners bore the slogans, Down with Chiang Kai Chek!)
I repeat, we the editors of The Catholic Worker had decided not to venture on world affairs. But when Catholics get up on New York streets and arouse race hatred in their Catholic listeners, then it is time for us to take a stand.
We believe that Hitler owes his success to the fact that it is easier to arouse a people against something concrete like a race than against an idea. It is not just the idea of materialism that the German people are fighting. They have made the Jew as a race the scapegoat. They have fastened on it the ills of present-day society. They have blamed Jews for defeat during the war, for the inflation after the war, for the present ills of the capitalist system. And even though individuals of the race, even though large masses of the race are guilty of the sins with which they are charged, the animus aroused against them is singular in that it is not an animus against the evils attendant on their actions, but against the Jews themselves.
To criticize the Jews for the protest which Jews have organized in this country and to say, as I heard them say at Long Island Station, “Are the Jews a sacred race that this enormous protest should have been organized?” is to be manifestly unfair. If no protests were organized on account of the persecution in Mexico or Spain, it is the fault of the Catholics themselves in that they are not naturally vociferous. Why didn’t all the Knights of Columbus, all the St. Vincent de Paul men, all the Holy Name men, all organizations in fact, hire Madison Square Garden themselves, form a parade that would block traffic for some ten hours and broadcast a huge protest against what was and is going on in Mexico?
Another thing, horrible as the persecution of the Catholics is, it is not a persecution of a race or people. It is all Catholics, of whatever nationality, that are having to put up a struggle for a position. The Times tried to point this out when they said that in Spain it was ex-Catholic against Catholic. What they should have said is that it was Spaniard against Spaniard. The persecution in Germany is actually a persecution of the Jews as a race. A stiff-necked generation. Not because they are Communists especially. Not because they are materialists. Many of them are not Communists and some of the most religious-minded men are Jews. But it is all Jews who are being fought and excoriated. It is the old pogrom spirit being revived. It is comparable only to the persecution of the Negro because of his race. It seems to be easy to arouse people to a concrete hatred of race. It is easy for children to fall into contemptuous attitudes because of race differences. And I believe that Hitler could never have gotten the following he has if he had not given to his fellow Germans someone, not something, to hate. It is a hatred primitive, fundamental, base.
For Catholics—or for anyone—to stand up in the public squares and center their hatred against Jews is to sidestep the issue before the public today. It is easier to fight the Jew than it is to fight for social justice—that is what it comes down to. One can be sure of applause. One can find a bright glow of superiority very warming on a cold night. If those same men were to fight for Catholic principles of social justice they would be shied away from by Catholics as radicals; they would be heckled by Communists as authors of confusion; they would be hurt by the uncomprehending indifference of the mass of people.
God made us all. We are all members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. We don’t want to extirpate people; we want to go after ideas. As St. Paul said, “we are not fighting flesh and blood but principalities and powers.”
In addition to getting out a paper, the editors of The Catholic Worker are engaging in a fight against the Unemployed Councils of the Communist Party. To combat them they are doing the same thing the Communists are doing, helping the unemployed to get relief, clothing, food and shelter. But we are cooperating with the Home Relief instead of obstructing them. Two or three times a week we have eviction cases. When a desperate man or woman comes in asking for help, we have to call the Home Relief to find out about getting a rent check. Then we have to find a landlord who will accept the voucher. Usually they won’t. There is only one landlord in our entire block who will take them. Over on Avenue B there is an Irish landlord willing to cooperate. On 17th Street there is a Jew. He is a Godsend because he has three houses.
After we have found an apartment, we have to commandeer a truck and men to do the moving. The sixteen-year-old boys in our neighborhood have been most helpful. Then there are always unemployed men coming into the office who are eager to help.
The other day we had a German Protestant livery stable man, giving us the use of a horse and wagon to move a Jewish family, and five Catholic unemployed men assisting their brother the Jew in getting transferred.
It is a situation which typifies the point I wish to make, that we are all creatures of God and members or potential members of the Mystical Body. This is something which those Catholics who bait the Jews lose sight of.