Justice Holmes & the Jews
To the Editor:
Many of your readers must have been astonished by Edmund Wilson’s “Notes on Gentile Pro-Semitism” in your October issue. It would almost appear that the more eminent the New Englander the more ardent the effort to claim some strain of Jewish blood. To Lowell and Chapman, I am able to add Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Shortly before Holmes’s death, he was visited by his friend Morris R. Cohen. I quote from a letter sent to me by Professor Cohen:
“I called on him and the conversation turned to Hitlerism. I told him that a great many people would be keen to have him, the representative of traditional American liberalism, express his view of that menace. To this he replied: ‘Why should I condemn anything in this world when I am no longer in it?’ Then pausing a while he said: ‘Still, it seems to me crazy. Doesn’t it seem so to you? Why, my ancestors the Wendells were Jews. They were originally the Vondells who came from Holland.’”
When I called this letter to the attention of a biographer of Holmes, a member of the Harvard Law School faculty, he replied, as I recall, that this “affectation” was not unusual in certain New England circles.
Surely this is a curious phenomenon. Was Holmes joking? Is it true? Or could it be an affectation? I wonder what Mr. Wilson would make of Holmes’s “Jewishness.”
Beryl Harold Levy
New York City