My Jewish Grandfather’s Correspondence with Henry Ford

How a chapter of my family’s history changed the way I think of the notorious anti-Semite.

Here’s an interesting story about Henry Ford and my Jewish grandfather. No, this is not a joke. It speaks to the complexity of life.

In 1914, my grandfather’s wife Elizabeth, an emigre from what is now Belarus and a U.S. citizen, returned home to visit relatives in Pinsk, a small city of about 30,000 at the time, much smaller and less well known than Minsk, today’s capital of Belarus. (Pinsk was part of Poland between the wars.)

When World War I began, she was stuck behind German lines as the Kaiser’s army advanced eastward. My grandfather, Israel Cooper, then 31, couldn’t reach her. A modest jobber in the Bronx— he was born in 1884 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1905— he set out to find her through other means.

With extraordinary pluck, he contacted then secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan. The once boy wonder and thrice Democratic nominee for president—perhaps best known for his “Cross of Gold” speech—Bryan was at the end of his career, serving in the Wilson administration. (My family still has the correspondence between Bryan’s office and my grandfather.)

Israel also reached out to Ford who was, of course, a notorious anti-Semite who would later author the famous four-volume screed The International Jew, which the Nazi Party used as a major source of propaganda. But, like my grandfather, the auto magnate opposed U.S. entry into the war. The letters show my grandfather using their mutual dovishness to butter him up. (Bryan opposed the war, too, and resigned as secretary of state over it when Wilson broke his promise not to join the fight.) Israel had an extensive correspondence with Ford’s personal secretary, who offered to help in the search for his wife.

As you might imagine, since I’m writing this 100 years later, Grandma Elizabeth was found and made it back to the states after enduring a harrowing experience—which she rarely discussed. I don’t think Ford, in the end, actually changed her fate much.

I bring this up not to redeem Ford’s anti-Semitic vitriol or celebrate his industrial greatness, but to note that my grandfather was clearly Jewish and that didn’t stop Ford’s secretary from taking on the case and, at least according to the secretary, bringing it to Ford’s attention. Yes, that could be bullshit. But I think not. Why not just ignore the letter from this urban peasant?

It sounds banal, but people are complicated, including Ford. That is why when I’ve seen copies of The International Jew for sale over the years—it was a Farrakhan favorite for a while and on sale at some Afrocentric book stores—my disgust has been tempered with some forgiveness.

It’s also telling that a modest Jewish peddler in the Bronx could reach Bryan and Ford at that time. The phalanx of press people and gatekeepers and supplicants had yet to grow to its present-day proportions.

It’s a reminder of how close the past is. I’m only 56, but my grandfather would be 135 today. (He’s five years older than Hitler and two years younger than FDR.) He died peacefully in 1976 at 92. My grandmother had passed away in 1968.

As horrible as my grandmother’s time in occupied Pinsk was, she couldn’t imagine what was to come. The relatives she went to visit all perished in the next German invasion across the Soviet Union, victims of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile execution teams, that predated and presaged the brutal efficiency of the death camps to come.

The Holocaust has made us appropriately contemptuous of those who fueled pre-war anti-Semitism. Acknowledging their humanity, even as they denied it to Jews and others, isn’t a shirking of historical duty, but an acknowledgement of human nuance. I’m pretty sure my grandparents, were they alive instead of having died peacefully in America, would agree.

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Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is a contributing editor at Washingtonian. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1987 to 1989.