THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS — Fri day, January 18, 1963 -- 2
'The World's Shortest Book': The Famous Exchange of
Letters Between John Steinbeck and Rev. L. M. Birkhead
Several years ago, this Commentator referred to the short-
est book in the world." In a hard-bound cover, entitled "A Letter
by John Steinbeck to the Friends of Democracy," the entire book,
including the dedicatory page, the
title page, the entire contents and
a page devoted to explaining the
number of printed copies, is all
of seven pages.
Dated September, 1940, this
explanation appears on the final
page: "Three hundred • and fifty
copies have been printed at the
Overbrook Press, Stamford, Con-
The title page reads: "John
Steinbeck . . . A letter written in
reply to a request for a statement
about his ancestry . . . Together
with the letter originally submitted
by the Friends of Democracy."
This is quoted in order to pro-
vide the background of Friends of
Democracy which was organized
and was headed until his death,
about four years ago, by the Rev.
Dr. Leon M. Birkhead.
The Late Dr. Birkhead
Our story begins with our late friend L. M. Birkhead, with
whom we were associated for more than a quarter of a century
in the battle against bigotry. Birkhead, who spoke in Detroit
on several occasions, made many friends here. One of his meet-
ings, held in the Central High auditorium, over which this
Commentator presided as president of the American Jewish Con-
gress, was invaded by adherents of Gerald L. K. Smith, and
admirers of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh. They
heckled the speaker and the chairman, threatened them and used
vile sneezing powder in an attempt to drive out the audience.
The episode ended in the anti-Semites having marched out of
the_ hall, permitting the meeting to go on in orderly fashion.
The invading horde of bigots was composed mostly of elderly
men and women who looked like a frustrated lot.
This is only part of the story. At noon, on the day of that
disgraceful anti-Semitic demonstration, a -luncheon was ar-
ranged by the American Jewish Congress, which then was
headed locally by this Commentator. An hour before the
luncheon, a prominent Detroit Jewish leader called us to plead
against any comments by Birkhead about either Ford, Smith
or Lindbergh. When we informed him that there could not
and would not be any censorship of speeches, he warned us
that Smith's Jewish attorney at that time was planning to send
a shorthand reporter to the meeting that night to make a com-
plete record of the proceedings. (When G. L. K. Smith first
came into the public limelight, he was not an anti-Semite. In
fact, he began by addressing a few Jewish audiences against
Coughlin. Very soon he was among the extremest maligners of
the Jews.) When we got to the Central High auditorium with
Birkhead, a shorthand reporter was already there, in front of
the platform, with all his equipment set up for action. As if
Birkhead would have hesitated to provide the panic-stricken
with the text of his speech!
Birkhead had come to the libertarian movement by accident.
He had held a pulpit in Kansas City and had taken a trip to
Germany in the early 1930s. While visiting a book exhibit in
Munich, he was struck by a special exhibition that was sponsored
by the arch pervert and anti-Semite Julius Streicher. It was a
display of anti-Semitic literature, and what shocked Birkhead was
that most of the pamphlets that were on display were printed
in the United States. Shocked by what he had seen, he com-
menced to do research on the subject of anti-Semitism upon his
return to this country. He began to trace the background of
the movements that were encouraging bigotry in this country
and he came to the conclusion that drastic steps must be taken
to fight prejudice and to expose anti-Semitism.
Soon after his return to his home, Birkhead gave up his
pulpit, organized the Friends of Democracy and devoted the
remaining 25 years of his life to the battle against anti-Semitism.
He exposed and fought every yes-
tige of prejudice and was respon-
sible for bringing to light manifes-
tations of hatred. In a number of
instances he succeeded in encour-
aging the abandonment of hate
ti movements. He interceded with the
Fords in efforts to stop the dis-
' tribution. of the malicious forger-
ies, the Protocols of the Elders
of Zion, and was influential in
enlisting the aid of many Chris-
tians in movements to fight Naz-
ism, Fascism and race hatred.
Word had spread that Stein-
beck was a Jew and the anti-
Semites made him their target. On
May 2, 1940, Birkhead wrote to
Steinbeck, to his home in Los
"I hope you will not think
I am impertinent, but our or-
John Steinbeck ganization has had put up to it
the problem of your nationality. You may consider that it is
none of our business, nor the business of anyone else in the
country. However, there is a very widespread propaganda,
particularly among the extreme reactionary religionists of the
country, that you are Jewish and that 'Grapes of Wrath' is
"I wonder if you have any sort of statement that you
could send me which would clarify this issue.
"I think you will be interested in the work that our
organization has been doing in combatting the pro-Nazi and
anti-Semitic propaganda so widespread throughout the country.
I am sending you a copy of our most recent publication,
`Father Coughlin: Self-Condemned.' "
This is the letter on the basis of which Steinbeck wrote his
Steinbeck's Rebuke to
Nazis . . . Recollection
of Birkhead's Services
Right Wingers Avoid
famous reply that led up to the publication by Birkhead of "the
shortest book in the world."
BOSTON, (JTA)—The emerg-
In reply to the above letter, Steinbeck replied, from Los ing extremist right-wing move-
Gatos, on May 7, 1940: went in the United States ap-
"I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness. pears inclined to keep anti-
I am sad for a time when one must know a man's race before Semitism at arm's length and
his work can be approved or disapproved. It does not seem j to guard against any expres-
important to me whether I am Jewish or not, and I know that i sions of anti-Semitism at its
a statement of mine is useless if an INTERESTED critic wishes forums, two local Jewish com-
to ride a preconceived thesis. I cannot see how the GRAPES munity relations agencies re-
OF WRATH can be Jewish propaganda but then I have heard ported.
it called communist propaganda also.
The conclusion emerged from
an appraisal by the Jewish Corn-
"It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish
munity Council of Metropolitan
blood but It only happens that way. I find that I do not
Boston and the New England
experience any pride that it is so.
office of the Anti - Defamation
"If you wish—here is my racial map, although you know League of Bnai Brith of a "13-
what an intelligent anthropoligist thinks of racial theories. hour talkathon," held in Boston
As you will see, I am the typical American Airedale.
under the title, "New England
"My grandfather on my father's side was German, the
Rally for God and Country."
son of a farming family which lived and still lives on a
The two principal themes of
fairly large farm near Dusseldorf. My grandfather came to
the rally were "castigation of
America in the late fifties in time to be in the Civil War. There
the National Association for the
has been little conununication with the German branch since
then except for a visit to Germany about four years ago by a Advancement of Colored Peo-
second cousin of mine. He reports that the family still lives ple" and recurrent praise of
on the same farm and that they appear to be good citizens, Major General Edwin A. Walker,
intensely blond and quite able to prove the nonsensical thing according to a report compiled
the Nazis insist on. Their name and ours by the way was by Robert E. Segal, Jewish Com-
munity Council director, and Isa-
Grosssteinbeck but the three s's in a row were an outrage to
America so my grandfather dropped the first syllable in the dore Zack of the ADL office.
interest of spelling.
They reported that these two
"My German grandfather married a New England woman themes "indicated that hostility
whose family name was Dickson who came from Leominster, towards the self-respecting and
Massachusetts, where her family had lived since the middle embattled Negro community has
replaced anti - Jewish outbursts
"On my mother's side my blood is all north Irish, my when rgiht-wingers get togeth-
grandfather, whose name was Hamilton having come from I er." They added that "no na-
1VIttlkeraugh, near Londonderry, and his wife whose name was tionally known anti - Semitic
propagandists" appeared - at the
Feaghan from nearby.
lengthy rally "and evidently
"Anyway there it is. Use it or don't use it, print it or
were not invited or welcomed."
not. Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me
The report also noted that
Jewish will go on believing it while men of good will and
while -the printed program indi-
good intelligence won't care one way or another.
"I can prove these things of course—but when I shall have cated that 20-minute question
periods were planned after pres-
to—the American democracy will have disappeared.
entations by each of the 12
"Yours is only one of the many letters I have received on
speakers on the program, no
the same subject. It is the first I have answered and I think questions were invited through-
it is the last. I fully recognize your position and do not
out the program. The report
in the least blame you for it. I am only miserable for the time
added that "past experience sug-
and its prejudice that prompt it.
gests that embarrassing ques-
tions reflecting considerable
bigotry often arise in such fo-
"P.S. On both sides and for many generations we are
rums and it may be well that
blond and blue-eyed to a degree to rouse the admiration and those in charge of the meeting
perhaps envy of the dark complexioned Hitler." were determined to avoid such
This exchange of letters deserves a place in the annals of displays of intolerance."
libertarianism. The appraisal referred to
On the occasion of the award of the Nobel Prize for Litera- radio reports that George Rock-
titre to John Steinbeck,, the question regarding his background well, the leader of the Ameri-
again was raised by some interested parties and the eminent can Nazi Party, was to be one
Jewish historian and publicist, Bernard G. Richards, through the of the rally participants and
Jewish Information Service he is supervising with skill, has had added, that if Rockwell had ap-
an opportunity to call attention again to the famous Steinbeck Ipeared, "the rally managers
letter. Octogenarian Richards, always alert to Jewish historical would have been in serious
needs, renders a service retaining data about Jews everywhere. trouble."
!Irwin Green anti A. Alfred Taubman Named
AJC Pre-Campaign Division Co-Chairmen
Irwin Green and A. Alfred Taubman have been named co-chairmen of the
pre-campaign division—big gifts solicitations— of the Allied Jewish Campaign,
Charles H. Gershenson, campaign chairman, announced.
A. ALFRED TAUBMAN
Taubman w a s pre-cam-
paign co-chairman in 1962
when Green was a pre-cam-
paign vice-chairman, Both
serve on the board of gov-
ernors of the Jewish Wel-
fare Federation. Taubman
is a director of the Detroit
Service Group, Jewish Cen-
ter and Home for the Aged.
Green serves on the boards
of the Service Group and
the Center and is a member
of the Federation capital
Florida Parley to Launch UJA's Drive on Fell. 17
The United Jewish Appeal an- the greatest the American Jew-I The tendering of a reception
nounced that it will launch its ish Community has ever seen."' and dinner by Governor Richard
1963 nationwide drive at a 25th
The UJA's 1963 campaign will J. Hughes of New Jersey in
national inaugural conference,
Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Fontain- seek a total of $96,000,000 for honor of the state's top Jewish
bleau Hotel, Miami Beach, Fla. assistance programs in behalf of : leadership on the occasion of
575,000 homeless and distressed the UJA's 25th anniversary year,
Joseph Meyerholf of Baltimore, Jews in 28 countries, with $36,- is expected to point the way to
general chairman of the UJA, 000,000 of the goal to be sought la similar series of events
said that plans call for this 25th as a United Jewish Appeal "Spe-Ithroughout the country. The
launching of a United Jewish cial Fund" for Israel's continu-1 dinner is to be held Jan. 29, at
Appeal campaign to be "one of ing increased immigration. Nassau Inn, Princeton.