Jewish Studies Jewish American World War II Literature
Leah Garrett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0160


Jewish Americans were central creators of American World War II literature. For instance, nearly all of the best-selling American war novels published between 1948 and 1961 were by or about Jewish soldiers. In Jewish-authored works, members of a statistically marginal population became principle figures through which the story of World War II was told. Three of the most important works of World War II literature were part of this corpus: Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. These three novels were massive best sellers that changed the way that Americans understood the recent war. Along with these hugely influential works, there were a number of other best sellers that are currently forgotten. The critical and popular dominance of Jewish war novels extended into the early 1970s, and the figure of the Jewish soldier developed over time, as the authors sought to impart different messages to their mainstream readership. The popularity of Jewish World War II literature meant that the Jewish soldier was a central trope in the postwar era in the United States. Jewish World War II literature was a different genre than Holocaust literature, because the focus was primarily on the battlefield and the experience of the soldier rather than on the civilian or the Jewish victim of the Nazis. When authors wrote about World War II through the lens of the Jewish soldier, they were creating an alternative character to the Jewish Holocaust victim. Unlike the European Jew murdered by the Nazis, the Jewish American soldier often killed Nazis. In this rendition, the Jewish American soldier was reborn in the United States into a brave, tough warrior who had shed the worst aspects of his shtetl heritage in preparation for beating the Germans. The Jewish American soldier, much like the “New Jew” of Palestine, was a figure of the future who had self-modernized and become more masculine and proactive than his weak, shtetl version. He represented the best of the United States, and literature about Jewish American soldiers played with this theme. Jewish American war writing transformed US literature by complicating the Hemingway trope of the tough, fearless soldier by instead giving him intellectual and emotional qualities. Jewish American literature about World War II was primarily in the form of the novel (in contrast, for instance, to British World War I literature, which was generally in the form of poetry). The literary styles varied from long, sweeping historical novels to experimental works. When a work is discussed as being “Jewish” or having “Jewish aspects,” it need not be assumed that the author is Jewish. In fact, writers such as James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, mimicked many of the tropes found in Jewish-authored best sellers, and his novels can be considered part of this cultural tradition. Jewish war literature had a unique stance on the war because of the Holocaust, and this was a central focus of the discourse. Also, as information about the Holocaust became more broadly disseminated, the descriptions of the Holocaust changed from explicit descriptions of what the Nazis had done to using the Holocaust to argue for how good Jews had it in the United States. Jewish World War II literature was set in three locations: the Pacific, Europe, and the United States. Since Jewish American World War II novels were part of the larger genre of the war novel, they therefore followed genre patterns that differentiated them from domestic novels: men undergoing life and death experiences, living and working away from their homes and families, and interacting with women either in their memories and letters from home or with the prostitutes they frequented in service. Overall, the genre of the war novel focused on extreme moments of life and death broken up by breaks at the base, where men from a range of backgrounds had to find a way to get along with one another. This means that the war writers used the setting of the platoon to explore the ideals of a multiethnic brotherhood (although African Americans were not included, since the platoons were segregated).

Pacific Setting

In the Pacific, in contrast to the European theater, the warfare itself tended to comprise short bouts of dangerous close combat on subtropical terrain, followed by long periods of waiting on bases, as is evident in Uris 2005 and Mailer 1998. Not only did the soldier in the Pacific battle a Japanese enemy that he had been taught to view as intent on killing him in the most brutal way possible, but he also had to deal with deadly insects, malaria, sweltering heat, and dense forests. In this war writing, the physical landscape of the Pacific was therefore drawn as exotic, terrifying, and utterly foreign. It was fecund, primal, and overgrown; the locals were “exotic primitives” in tune with nature and considered “childlike”; and there were no symbols of “civilization” such as schools, houses of worship, and shops—as explored in Wolfert 1948. In Pacific-set war novels, the landscape therefore took on its own life as a primitive and deadly force at battle with the modern American war machine. For Jewish servicemen in the Pacific, Jewishness did not take on the elevated status that it did for those serving in Europe who battled Nazis intent on killing Jews. The Pacific war, therefore, could be seen as an anarchic force of destruction, and to write about it often meant employing dark and harsh tones. Moreover, in most of the novels set in the Pacific, the Japanese soldier was drawn with a level of empathy, as was done in Jones 1998 and Wolfert 1948. This was perhaps a means to show that the Japanese, like the Jews, were treated especially poorly because of their minority status. This was a challenge to American propaganda efforts that generally painted the Japanese as the subhuman enemy and the German as the European brother.

  • Canin, Ethan. Carry Me Across the Water. New York: Random House, 2001.

    The novel focuses on an elderly German Jewish American, August Kleinman, as he reflects on his life, focusing centrally on his experiences as a soldier in the Pacific campaign. The descriptions of the horrific close combat battles focus on a life-changing encounter with a Japanese soldier that awakens him to his love for his Catholic sweetheart at home. This is a rich, poetic, nonlinear literary novel about a Jewish American veteran whose life is deeply rooted in his war experiences.

  • Dibner, Martin. The Deep Six. New York: Doubleday, 1953.

    A best-selling novel, made into a movie, about a Naval ship patrolling the Aleutian Islands in 1943. The novel was published the year after Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and has a more liberal ethos than Wouk’s conservative novel, focusing on the racism and anti-Semitism aboard ship and the misuse of power by senior staff. The novel culminates with a terrifying surface battle. The Deep Six has a broad range of characters, including a Jewish petty officer from Brooklyn, Frenchy Shapiro.

  • Jones, James. The Thin Red Line. New York: Delta, 1998.

    Originally published in 1962, the novel describes the final weeks of the C-for-Charlie Company’s game-changing battle against the Japanese. The much-loved leader of the company, Captain Stein, is an intellectually minded, good-hearted man who is the moral locus of the book. His “Jewishness” is found in his being an ethical thinker whose main aim is to make the right decisions to protect his men.

  • Mailer, Norman. The Naked and the Dead. Fiftieth Anniversary ed. New York: Picador, 1998.

    Originally published in 1948, the novel was the first major American best seller of World War II. The polyphonic novel describes a foray into a jungle overrun by the Japanese. Two of the central protagonists, Roth and Goldstein, must reckon with the constant anti-Semitism of their fellow soldiers. In the end, they take opposing stances: Roth does a suicidal leap over a crevice to show an anti-Semitic soldier that he is tough and brave, while Goldstein instead develops a deep friendship with a fellow soldier.

  • Uris, Leon. Battle Cry. New York: Avon Books, 2005.

    Originally published in 1953, Uris’s first best-selling novel describes the Marine’s bloody battles for Guadalcanal and Tarawa (where Uris himself served). There are two central Jewish characters: the fearless he-man Captain Max Shapiro, who is killed in battle, and young Jake Levin, who dies heroically. The novel is unusual because of its focus on the Marines, the branch of the military in which the fewest Jews served and about which few war novels had been written.

  • Wolfert, Ira. An Act of Love. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1948.

    This best-selling novel describes a battle between the Japanese and Americans for an imaginary South Pacific island. The protagonist, the Navy Reserve pilot Harry Bruner, is the sole survivor of his warship’s sinking. Initially, he retreats from battle with a local family, but then undertakes a heroic and successful mission into the jungle to try and root out the Japanese holdouts. Over the course of the novel, he comes to terms with his Jewishness by reorienting it into an internationalist perspective.

  • Wouk, Herman. The Caine Mutiny. New York: Little, Brown, 1992.

    Originally published in 1951. One of the largest best sellers of the postwar era, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1951, the novel describes the mutiny of a group of men on a minesweeper. The novel seems to side with the men, but during their trial their Jewish lawyer, Barney Greenwald, turns the tables, stating that these men engaged in a mutiny against a military that was responsible for stopping the Nazis from killing all the Jews of Europe.

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