Obituary: David S. Wyman, Holocaust Scholar, Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Note: This obituary hs been updated to include a local remembrance service and information on memorial donations.
David S. Wyman, Distinguished Professor emeritus of history and author of the best-selling critique of the country’s response to the Holocaust “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-45,” died March 14. He was 89 and lived in Amherst.
Born March 6, 1929 in Weymouth, he was the grandson of Protestant ministers and recalled his parents instilling in him “not just tolerance, but a high degree of respect for all different people.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University and a master’s in education from Plymouth State College in New Hampshire before receiving his doctorate in history at Harvard, where his dissertation was “American Refugee Policy 1938-41.”
He taught elementary school and high school in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and was a history lecturer at Clark and Northeastern universities before joining UMass Amherst in 1966.
He held professorships in history and Judaic studies and during his 25-years on campus was associate chair of the history department and twice chair of the Judaic studies program.
In 1986, he was named Josiah E. DuBois Jr. Holocaust Remembrance Professor of History, a name Wyman chose to honor DuBois, a Treasury Department official who fought to rescue Jews in Europe during World War II.
Wyman retired from the university in 1991.
He was in graduate school when he began a long-term quest to learn what was done on behalf of the millions of Jews rounded up and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.
“The Abandonment of the Jews,” which came out in 1984, drew upon private and government records and contemporary media accounts to show there was widespread indifference and hostility to the Jews in Europe, even as their systematic extermination was conclusively documented. He faulted religious organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish; mainstream newspapers and movies; and the anti-Jewish feelings of the general public.
The federal government was slow to act, enforcing strict immigration quotas and refusing to bomb the concentration camps; waiting until well after the Holocaust had begun to establish a War Refugee Board, then forcing the agency to rely mostly on private funding. The blame rose right to the top, with Roosevelt, who Wyman alleged was more concerned about angering anti-Semites than about helping the Jews.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, praised Wyman for his “courageous, lucid, painful book.” And “The Abandonment of the Jews” received several honors, including the National Jewish Book Award.
Most scholars accepted his general argument that the U.S had done too little, but some disagreed with individual aspects, such as whether the U.S. could have disrupted or destroyed the Nazi camps. Roosevelt’s defenders said Wyman had failed to appreciate that the president’s options were limited.
In 1984, Wyman spoke out about the “very striking” parallel between nations’ inaction during the Holocaust and the ongoing killing in Sarajevo.
“The Abandonment of the Jews” was credited with helping to inspire the American rescue of hundreds of Ethiopian Jews stranded in Sudan in 1985. John R. Miller, a congressman and later an ambassador for combatting human trafficking, told a Wyman Institute conference that he had given copies of the book to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and his top aides. According to Miller, Bush called the book a major factor in the U.S. decision to airlift the Jews and eventually bring them to Israel. Bush later sent Wyman a handwritten note of gratitude.
Wyman continued his investigations with “The World Reacts to the Holocaust” and “America and the Holocaust,” a 13-volume compilation of documents used for “Abandonment of the Jews.”
He was chairman of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which was founded by colleagues and named in his honor in 2003. The institute brings together a politically, religiously and culturally diverse group of concerned individuals and scholars who share a commitment to studying, documenting and publicizing the lessons of America’s response to the Holocaust.
Founding director Rafael Medoff said, Wyman “was much too humble a man to ever consider establishing an institution named after himself; and it took considerable effort to persuade him to let us put his name on the institute.”
Wyman was awarded honorary doctorates by Yeshiva University and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of religion. He served as a special advisor to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and was a member of the International Academic Advisory Board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
He was predeceased by his wife Mildred “Midge” Wyman. He is survived by his children, Jim and Teresa.
A memorial remembrance will be held Sunday, April 15 at 2 p.m. at South Congregational Church, 1066 South East St., Amherst.
Donations in his memory may be made to Fast Friends Greyhound Adoption. Make checks payable to Fast Friends Rescue, and send to Fast Friends, P.O. Box 10093, Swanzey, NH 03446 or to The Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies via credit card at www.wymaninstitute.org or by sending a check to the Institute at 1200 G St. NW, Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20005.
A public event commemorating Wyman’s life and legacy will be held in New York City by the Wyman Institute at a date to be announced.