In 1940, Darryl Zanuck released a now forgotten film- Brigham Young: Frontiersman. This was the first sympathetic cinematic portrayal of the Mormon story, and it was warmly welcomed both by LDS leadership and lay members. The late Davis Bitton pointed out that the message of the film went beyond just telling the Mormon story, and was concerned with the present no less than the past.
“I wonder how many people who saw the movie "Brigham Young" realized that it was also about the Jews. By this time, the terrible persecution of Jews in Hitler's Germany was far advanced. Nazi troops had moved into the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They had invaded Poland, the Netherlands, and France. France and England had declared war. Jews were being herded into camps. Some hid and some fled to safety in other countries. All of this was very much on the mind of people like Darryl Zanuck. We don't have to guess that this comparison was in his mind because he said so, and the comparison was also picked up by many reviewers. A movie about a persecuted religious minority, driven from their homes and seeking refuge elsewhere was very topical in 1940. You didn't have to be aware of this sub-text to enjoy the movie, but it was there and provided some of the motivation that brought it into being.”
However, this was not the first time that the Mormon narrative was utilized to highlight the plight of Jews. In 1902, the Hebrew-language newspaper, Ha-Magid, published a letter about the rise of anti-Semitism in New-York. This letter by a correspondent identified only as “a Galician” shared some instances of this anti-Semitism. In one, Jews were framed for petty theft in order to keep them out of hotels. In another, a gang of Christian youth attacked Jewish park-goers, beating some and raping others.
The correspondent made high use of alarmist rhetoric, and referenced the Mormon experience as an example of what might happen to American Jews if the anti-Semitic outbursts in New York were left unchecked.
“Before antisemitism appeared in America, the Americans were famed as the most tolerant and free people in the world, but now that it has appeared here, there are grounds to the fear that hatred of Jews will develop to a degree unheard of in Europe. That the Americans are capable of persecuting people with a fury and wrath far surpassing that of the nations of Europe we know from the persecutions of Mormons in the previous century, which were more terrible than even the persecutions of the Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages.“
The correspondent, as it turned out, was wrong. The very next year, a pogrom occurred in the town of Kishinev, signaling a series of violent attacks in several towns of the Russian Empire. The degree of official tolerance, complicity, and even instigation of the violence sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world. Just over a decade later, the Jewish writer and activist, S. Ansky, witnessed what he termed the destruction of Galicia. The Russian atrocities against the Jewish communities of Galicia (home of the Magid’s correspondent) in World War One were staggering, but if that wasn’t enough, the Russian Civil War saw further eruptions of violence, not only under Petlyura, but also among the Whites and the Reds. The horror of Haun’s Mill was repeated in town after town and village after village of Jewish Eastern Europe. The Jewish writer Isaac Babel described in his terse, laconic style a Polish pogrom in Komarov, and the callousness of the subsequent occupation by the Red Army.
“Last night Captain Yakovlev's Cossacks were here. A pogrom. The family of David Zis, in their home, the old prophet, naked and barely breathing, the butchered old woman, a child with chopped-off fingers. Many of these people are still breathing, the stench of blood, everything turned topsy-turvy, chaos, a mother over her butchered son, an old woman curled up, four people in one hut, dirt, blood under a black beard, they're just lying there in their blood… At night, a walk through the shtetl. The moon, their lives at night behind closed doors. Wailing inside. They will clean everything up. The fear and horror of the townsfolk. The main thing: our men are going around indifferently, looting where they can, ripping the clothes off the butchered people.”
It wouldn’t take more than a generation before the Jewish world of Eastern Europe disappeared almost entirely in the Holocaust. On the other hand, neither Jewish nor Mormon communities in the United States have been subjected to such violence and destruction, and one hopes that this is true fifty, seventy, and one hundred years from now.
Even though Ha-Magid’s predictions have thus far proved incorrect, the letter is invaluable as an example of how other minorities could view and use the Mormon experience to relate and define their own experiences and fears in the new world.
Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry, 279.