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David Wyman, Holocaust Scholar

A Christian who studied the fate of the Jews

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David Wyman was a historian of the Holocaust. He spent his academic career at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst teaching, researching and writing about this horrific chapter of history. A 1985 Berkshire Eagle review of his book Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 deemed him an “unusual historian.” The reviewer pointed out he was a Christian who devoted his entire career to studying the fate of the Jews.

While at Amherst, he chaired the Judaic studies program, and later chaired of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C.

Religious Beliefs of David Wyman

David Sword Wyman was born in Weymouth, Mass., in 1929, the son of Hollis Judson Wyman and Ruth Sword. His family belonged to Centenary Methodist Church in Auburndale, Mass. According to census records, two of his grandfathers were ministers.

Rev. Stephen W. Wyman, born in Nova Scotia, was a Methodist minister in Franklin, who died in Lynn, Mass. Andrew Peter Sword, born in Sweden, moved from New Jersey in 1901 to serve as a minister at First Swedish Baptist Church in Silverhill, Ala., where he died.

Perhaps David acquired his deep religious faith from these family connections, later prompting his curiosity and sympathy to the suffering of the Jewish people during World War II. At lectures, people often asked him why he, a Christian was so interested in Jewish issues. His answer, according to the Jewish News Syndicate, was that “a human being, no matter his or her religious faith, should care, and act, when innocent people are persecuted.” His obituary from Amherst mentions that his parents instilled in him “not just tolerance but a high degree of respect for all different people.”

Spencer Memorial Chapel at William Penn College

Even as a young man, he demonstrated religious integrity. He studied at William Penn College, a Quaker school, in Oskaloosa, Iowa. At some time during his youth he apparently embraced the Quaker faith. In September 1948, the Des Moines Register printed a letter from David stating his resistance to the peacetime draft. Then in January, he received an 18 month jail sentence for draft evasion, along with five other Quaker students. The Berkshire Eagle published the story on Jan. 18, 1948, “Ottumwa, Iowa: 6 Quaker Students Get 18 months for Draft Evasion.“

A month later this Boston Globe article appeared: “Auburndale Draft Opposer Engaged to College Classmate.”  David had gotten engaged to Mildred L. Smith, a classmate from William Penn College. They married in 1950.

Career and Writing

After receiving degrees from Boston University and Harvard, David was a professor at Amherst from 1966-1991. He taught History and Judaic Studies and wrote several books on the Holocaust. According to Wikipedia, his book Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941 was “one of the most important books on American immigration policy in the Nazi years.”

The Boston Globe quoted David Wyman in a story about the Holocaust on July 4, 1978. Under the headline “Haven for Jewish Refugees Opposed by U.S. Officials,” Wyman said the U.S. State Department felt it was a security risk to rescue Jewish refugees since German agents could slip in with them. He also said that the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) and the Unitarian Service Committee worked for rescue and relief.

In addition to Paper Walls and The Abandonment of the Jews, David cowrote, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust. Bergson had led a campaign to rescue Holocaust victims. Wyman also edited The World Reacts to the Holocaust by Charles H. Rosenzveig, and he contributed an essay to Rafael Medoff’s Too Little and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.

A Prolific Writer

David also wrote articles and letters to the editor of many magazines. A few examples include an article in Commentary in May 1978 discussing why Auschwitz was never bombed although requests had become numerous by the spring of 1944. They also include a letter to the editor of American Jewish History in March 1998, also about the question of bombing Auschwitz.

David also exchanged letters with Jack Conroy* of Moberly, Mo., author of The Disinherited, 1933. He told Jack that he was using The Disinherited, a book about Missouri life during the Great Depression, in his history classes and that the students enjoyed reading it. A 1977 letter to Jack mentioned that he spent nine months in federal prison in Springfield, Mo., as a conscientious objector, and that he met his wife Midge at William Penn College in Oskaloosa. These letters to Jack also displayed David’s humor. One letter in 1980 began “Dear Sage of Moberly: Ahoy & avast me hearty!” In another letter, dated 1984, he signed off “Dave Wyman The Sage of (now nuclear-free zone, believe it or not) Amherst.”

David Wyman died in Amherst in March 2018. His obituary appeared in the Boston Globe and dozens of papers across the country. He was described as a leading scholar of the U.S. response to the Holocaust. The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies was founded by colleagues and named for him in 2003. According to his obituary from Amherst he was “much too humble of a man to ever consider establishing an institution named after himself; and it took considerable effort to persuade him…”.

As mentioned in the 1985 Berkshire Eagle article (mentioned above), “It is his humanity even more than his scholarship that impresses the reader.”

End Notes

Rebecca Rector of Troy, N.Y., is a history and genealogy researcher, and retired librarian from Siena College. She has been transcribing letters and diaries for Newberry Library and National Archives for the past three years.

Source: *Jack Conroy Letters are at Newberry Library, Chicago.

Images: Des Moines Register, September 5, 1948, pg. 43; Berkshire Eagle, January 18, 1949, pg. 15; Boston Globe, February 11, 1949, pg. 37; Boston Globe obituary & photo, March 16, 2018, pg. B9. David Wyman By Image: The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust StudiesImmediate source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/16/obituaries/david-wyman-scholar-of-americas-holocaust-response-dies-at-89.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70537604. Spencer Memorial Chapel By Boscophotos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48323417.



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