By Steven G. Kellman
Previous pandemics have been even more catastrophic than COVID-19. From 1348-50, the bubonic plague (aka “the Black Death”) wiped out one-third of the population from Iceland to India. The most popular book on the subject, A Distant Mirror, won the National Book Award in 1980. Its author, Barbara Tuchman, was the daughter of Maurice Wertheim, president of the American Jewish Congress and granddaughter of Henry Morgenthau, who, as United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, tried to avert the Armenian genocide. Tuchman is especially attentive to how the medieval pestilence demanded scapegoats and found them in the Jews, already stigmatized as Christ-killers. Accused of poisoning wells and otherwise spreading contagion, tens of thousands of them were slaughtered by rampaging mobs. “By the time the plague had passed,” writes Tuchman, a few years after Nazi gas chambers and death squads achieved the same result,“few Jews were left in Germany or the Low Countries.”
Writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust and amid the novel reality of nuclear weapons, Tuchman titled her book A Distant Mirror because, although the Black Death was 600 hundred years distant, the terror of the era was mirrored in her own time. During the 1950s, one response to the ambient dread was the campaign against people deemed “un-American.” They turned out to be disproportionately Jewish. Six members of the Hollywood Ten, a minyan of screenwriters and directors who were imprisoned and blacklisted for refusing to name names, were Jewish – Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, and Samuel Ornitz. “There are too many Jews in Hollywood,” declared Martin Dies, the zealous chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
However, amid the epidemic of hysteria, a very real, very infectious disorder, polio, was ravaging America, counting 58,000 cases at its peak. In his final novel, Nemesis (2010), Philip Roth tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a playground director in Newark whose life is destroyed by the dreaded disease. The polio epidemic is not so distant a mirror that many of us cannot remember how it blighted childhood with the threat of disability and death. Until the development of an effective vaccine, it was unsafe to frequent public playgrounds and swimming pools.
Three Jews were instrumental in subduing the menace of polio. Jonas Salk, born in New York to Lithuanian immigrants, became as famous as Elvis after the vaccine he developed was declared safe for widescale injections in 1955. Soon thereafter, an oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin – born Abram Saperstein in Bialystok – was released. When Salk and Sabin were students, many medical schools had strict quotas to limit Jews, and both studied at New York University, which did not. Though not as well-known as Salk and Sabin, Hilary Koprowski, an immigrant from Warsaw, is credited with developing the first polio vaccine.
When not celebrated as miracle workers, Jews have been vilified as carriers of plague. The current pandemic has aroused anti-Asian animosity, but it has also encouraged miscreants to blame George Soros, the Rothschilds, Hasidim, and Israel for creating, spreading, or profiting from COVID-19. Bigotry is as viral as disease.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.