In the 1940s and 1950s, the Communist monthly Jewish Life (later Jewish Currents) frequently published articles about the Holocaust—and especially about the April 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising—as well as on the plight of American blacks. After numerous attempts to recruit W.E.B. Du Bois to contribute to its pages, writes Jenna Weissman Joselit, the magazine’s editors convinced him to speak at a “Tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters” in 1952, and published his remarks in the following issue. Du Bois’s address drew on his 1949 visit to Warsaw, which had affected him deeply:
I have seen something of human upheaval in this world: the scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta, the marching of the Ku Klux Klan, the threat of courts and police, the neglect and destruction of human habitation, but nothing in my wildest dreams was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949. I would have said before seeing it that it was impossible for a civilized nation with deep religious convictions and outstanding religious institutions, with literature and art, to treat fellow human beings as Warsaw had been treated. . . .
Gradually, from looking and reading [about the ghetto uprising], I rebuilt the story of this extraordinary resistance to oppression and wrong . . . a resistance which involved death and destruction for hundreds and hundreds of human beings.
In 1954, Du Bois for the first time reached out to the magazine’s then-editor Louis Harap, requesting the text of a Hebrew blessing that he could put into the mouth of a character in a novel he was writing—a German rabbi and Holocaust survivor. Harap, a committed secularist, had to turn elsewhere for help; the result was a letter sent to Du Bois with a translation and transliteration of the priestly blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26. Joselit writes:
Du Bois would go on to make use of the blessing in the concluding pages of [his novel] Worlds of Color, the last volume of his Black Flame trilogy. At once a sweeping work of historical fiction and a rueful self-portrait, it follows the life and times of Manual Mansart, the president of a historically black college in Georgia.
In the 1961 novels’ last dramatic set piece, an aging Mansart is unceremoniously expelled from a conference. [Present is] Rabbi Blumenschweig, who turns out to be the character Du Bois had first mentioned to Harap. . . . The two men exit [the conference] together. Just as the ailing Mansart is about to get into a cab, the clergyman . . . places his hands on his old friend’s shoulders and blesses him. . . . Mansart dies several pages later, his legacy—and that of his creator—hallowed by an age-old Jewish prayer.
Read more on Jewish Review of Books: https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/3237/du-bois-the-warsaw-ghetto-and-a-priestly-blessing/