September 22, 2010
The Holocaust and the Newspapers
The most agonizing question of the Holocaust is whether the free world could have done more to save Jews in Europe from the Nazis during World War II. Among the questions in this category, is whether newspapers and radio could have pressured the governments of Great Britain and the United States to take action by rescuing more refugees, and executing military maneuvers to disrupt the transportation of victims to concentration camps. For this to happen would have required (1) the pressure of large newspaper headlines trumpeting Nazi genocide against the Jews and the Romani, (2) constant front page placement of the horrific stories coming out of Poland and Russia and (3) angry newspaper editorials urging government actions. In this essay criticisms of British and American newspaper holocaust coverage are examined and justified. An attempt is made to understand why the press behaved the way it did. In the study questions at the end of this paper, the effectiveness of contemporary communications meaning television and satellite distribution of it are considered. Students are asked whether even with today’s coverage the perpetration of genocide can be effectively countered by public opinion.
By Jack Heller
The news coverage of the Holocaust has been a source of controversy for many years. There are some who believe that had the newspapers in free Europe and America given over their pages to the eye-witness descriptions of what was happening in the killing camps, then perhaps public opinion would pressure governments to take action to save the Jews (see question 6 below).
There are at least three reasons offered for why newspapers have been criticized for their Holocaust coverage.
First there was the incredulity that Germany would be capable of mass murder. The Holocaust is unique to historians because it is the first example of industrial killing. The term industrial implies that the Germans successfully created a process similar to the mass production of automobiles in order to eliminate a people. In the case of the Holocaust, the Jews, Romani (gypsies) and homosexuals were the “raw materials” of the extermination process. They were assembled in a methodical fashion to collection points (deportation camps). The “methodical fashion” referred to in the previous sentence includes lists written by Jews of members of the community and in many cases converted to punched cards by the Nazis for tabulation purposes. The “raw materials” were then transported by trains from the deportation camps to extermination camps. There they were “processed” either by mobile gas vans as was the case for two extermination camps or in buildings (gas chambers). The main goal of the “manufacturing process” was death of all Jews, Romani, etc. Their bodies were processed for usable materials such as hair, gold teeth, watches, jewelry, etc. The corpses which represented the “waste” from the process and took up too much space as well as being a health hazard were “processed” once again, this time by cremation, into ash. Western diplomats, reporters, editors and government officials could not believe the stories. Some thought the reports were propaganda from exiled governments of countries overrun by the Germans. Others assumed that although there may have been some murders, nevertheless the scale of atrocities was exaggerated. And of course there were some who did not care or dismissed the reports as the usual carnage from war.
In addition to disbelief of the magnitude of the crime, readers were justified in being skeptical given the newspaper reports about German atrocities during World War I especially in the British papers. Having run horrific stories about German brutality, historians discovered afterwards that the stories were untrue. There was no accessible way of determining whether the reports of mass killings were true or just propaganda.
A second reason for criticisms of Holocaust coverage has been the charge of anti-Semitism against the publisher of the most prominent American newspaper, the New York Times. The publisher of the paper was Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Sulzberger is considered nowadays to be an assimilationist Jew, namely a person who would just as soon not be identified as a Jew by his contemporaries. He did not hide his religion – he was a member of a synagogue in New York – but he did not want people to assume that his viewpoints were pro-Jewish. It is worth noting that not only did the Times downplay the Holocaust as it happened but the editorial page did not vigorously endorse the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, long after the facts of the Holocaust were well known and the survivors in need of a new homeland. Nevertheless the New York Times published over one thousand stories about the Holocaust up until the end of war
It is also true that during the 1930s anti-Semitism increased in the United States due most likely to the Great Depression. During that time, Jews were accused of being financial manipulators who controlled banks and the stock market and brought about economic calamities. Indeed a popular radio commentator was Father Coughlin, a Catholic cleric, who denounced Jews in his broadcasts. It is not surprising that newspapers with Jewish staffs were reticent about being accused of special pleading on behalf of the Jews in Europe and hence did not feature sensational horror stories from Europe on the front pages of their newspapers lest their readers accuse them of playing to Jewish interests.
A third reason was the indifference of governments both in Britain and the United States to the fate of the Jews. (The French Vichy government was a puppet of the Germans and collaborated with them.) The explanations are two-fold. First is that the governments were busy waging a world war and did not have the time or the military opportunity to come to the aid of victims in Europe. It was only until 1944 that the Allies established air superiority over the Germans in Europe which would have allowed possible life-saving operations, although at that point the major killing had been done (see question 6 below). The second explanation is institutional anti-Semitism in the government. Most observers are willing to acknowledge that the United States Department of State Division of European Affairs dragged its feet with respect to the Jews primarily to keep refugees out of the country. In this they were following the wishes of a Congress that consisted of anti-Semitic Democrats from the American South and Republicans from the North. It has been belatedly acknowledged that the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was at best indifferent to the plight of the Jews and at worst something of an anti-Semite himself despite the support he got from Jewish voters and minions such as Rabbi Stephen Wise. The point that needs to be made then is that since the government did not care about the fate of the Jews, why should the press make a big issue of it either? Newspapers dutifully reported the facts about the Holocaust as they leaked out, but there is a difference about small stories hidden in the depths of a paper and an aggressive editorial policy that used the layout of the front page to advocate major issues, and the editorial page to demand action. It is this lack of emphasis which prompts the most criticism of newspaper accounts of the Holocaust.
The Reports of the Holocaust
On June 21, 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. July saw the start of mass executions of Jews in the Ukraine. Small commando groups would trail the German army as it progressed east. The groups would round up the Jews in each town and city and murder them with machine guns as they stood before pits or ditches into which they fell after being hit. The pits were then covered up after each massacre. These actions could not be kept secret. Local observers would witness the shootings and the news would travel east to Moscow or west to London. The stories were picked up by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a news service devoted to disseminating news about Diaspora Jewry. The reports of killings in Brest, Minsk, and Lvov were sent via the agency to American Yiddish newspapers such as The Forward published in New York.
In Poland, the earliest reports of Nazi concentration camp actions were from Witold Pilecki, a captain in the Polish army, who actually volunteered to be in the Auschwitz concentration camp. After the surrender of the Polish army to the Germans and Russians, he returned from eastern Poland to Warsaw and started an underground resistance. On September 19, 1940 he intentionally included himself in a Nazi roundup, was tortured for two days and then sent to Auschwitz under the false name of Tomasz Serafinski. There he created an underground intelligence network which provided information on workings of Auschwitz which Pilecki relayed to the Polish resistance and then to the British government in London. He escaped from Auschwitz on April 26, 1943 but was later executed on May 25, 1948 by the communist Polish government. It should be noted that the Birkenau portion of the Auschwitz camp where gassing was performed did not commence until the spring of 1942. Pilecki was the first to report the existence of the gas chambers.
Jan Karski was chosen to undertake a secret mission describing Nazi atrocities and then to present his findings to the Polish government-in-exile in London. On two occasions in 1942 he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto by the Jewish underground where he witnessed the conditions of the Jews trapped there. He was also taken possibly to the Izbica concentration camp disguised as an Ukrainian camp guard. The camp was believed to be located in the vicinity of the Belzec extermination camp. Later that year he escaped to London where he told of his experiences not only to the Polish government but also the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. In 1943 he traveled to Washington and met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom he spoke with on two occassions), numerous government officials, religious leaders including Rabbi Stephen Wise, newspaper editors and Hollywood executives. But many discounted his testimony as either propaganda or exaggerations. His experiences were published in 1944, in a book entitled Story of a Secret State which sold 400,000 copies.
In March 1942 S. Bertrand Jacobson of the American Joint Distribution Committee who had spent two years in Budapest overseeing relief efforts gave a press conference in New York where he estimated that the Nazis had already killed 240,000 Jews in the Ukraine.
In May of the same year, the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland compiled a detailed report of the killing actions in Poland and transmitted the report to the Polish government-in-exile in London. The document is noteworthy for its accurate description of the mobile killing vans which gassed 90 people at a time using engine exhaust fumes back inside the truck cargo holds where Jews were transported. This technique would serve as the inspiration for the gas chambers in the extermination camps.
Up until July 1942, newspaper readers as well as government leaders and others were confronted with a puzzle: they knew that (1) Jews were murdered by German soldiers fighting in Russia and Eastern Europe, (2) Polish Jews were disappearing and (3) Jewish refugees including children and old people were being shipped from France to the East ostensibly to work in labor camps. It was still not clear to many what the Germans were up to. This last piece of the puzzle was provided by the Riegner report (discussed in detail below) which asserted that the Nazi government had a plan to exterminate all Jews under German control. The logic pointing to genocide could no longer be disputed.
Late in the war, on April 7, 1944 two Jewish inmates Rudolf Verba and Alfred Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz with the first detailed account of the extermination process going on in Auschwitz. The report reached Budapest at the end of April and then was sent to a representative of the United States War Refugee Board in Switzerland in June. The details were broadcast by the BBC on June 15 and on June 20 by the New York Times. The complete report was published on November 25, 1944 the same day as the last executions of Jews at Auschwitz.
What started as a trickle of stories published in the Yiddish press increased as newspapers began presenting accounts of mass murder in Europe. In the first half of 1942, reports of deportations of Jews appeared in the Swedish press. These accounts were subsequently picked up in the American papers.
On June 1, 1942 the United Press wire service quoted a figure of 200,000 dead, while the next day the BBC broadcast a figure of 700,000 Polish Jews killed. The United Press story made the front page of the Seattle Times. Its headline read “Jews Slain Total 200,000!” The Jewish Bund report with its figure of 700,000 dead was published in the Boston Globe on June 26 although at the bottom of page 12. The New York Times published a brief account of the Bund report on June 27 which it had obtained from the Columbia Broadcasting System. Later, on July 2 it published an extensive account of the report, on page 6. A second account from the Jewish Bund appeared in the summer of 1942. Gravediggers from the Chelmno extermination camp had escaped certain death by escaping in January of 1942. They brought a detailed account of the killing process by gas at the camp. It also described the recovery of rings and god teeth from the victims. This story was ignored by virtually all of the American press except for small Jewish newspapers such as the Jewish Frontier and the Workmen’s Circle Call.
The roundup and deportation of Jewish refugees living in France was the other Holocaust story of the summer of 1942. Unlike the countries in Eastern Europe where the Nazis controlled the flow of news, the Germans had to rely on the French to carry out the capture of Jewish refugees who had sought asylum in France and their deportations on trains to Poland. Many foreigners as well as the French themselves witnessed the brutality of the Vichy government in its apprehension of the Jews. These outrages were continually reported on by the American wire services and appeared in newspapers throughout America. The most infamous of these activities occurred on July 16, 1942 when 13,000 Jewish refugees, half of them children, were captured by French police starting at four o’clock in the morning. 9,000 were herded into the Paris winter sports arena known as the Velodrome d’Hiver in the rue Nelaton where they languished with little water and food and had to wait for hours to use one of the ten latrines. Five days later the adults and children were separated and sent off by train to concentration camp transit points for shipment to the East. Although this story was carried in many newspapers in the United States, an equally ugly account by the United Press in which the shipping of 4,000 children in boxcars without food and water was not publicized except by the Los Angeles Times, among the major papers.
In July of 1942, Eduard Schulte a German anti-Nazi industrialist informed a business associate Isidor Koppelmann in Zurich that he had obtained information concerning Nazi intentions for the European Jews. Koppelmann in turn contacted Benjamin Sagalowitz who ran a Jewish community information bureau in Switzerland. Sagalowitz relayed the information to Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress. Riegner telegraphed the U.S. State Department which ignored the information, due in large part to its anti-Semitic bureaucrats and an unwillingness to believe that the Germans wished to exterminate the Jews. The information that Schulte provided was a description of the Final Solution in which poison gas would be used to totally exterminate the Jews.
On September 3, Jacob Rosenheim of the Agudath Israel World Organization received a cable from Isaac Sternbach, a representative of Orthodox Jewry in Switzerland, which described the mass execution of 100,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. After a meeting with prominent Jewish leaders, Rabbi Wise confronted the anti-Semitic Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles who was already aware of the Riegner report. Welles asked Wise not to release this information to the press until the State Department had confirmed its veracity and Wise complied until November 24 when Welles informed him that the Riegner report was indeed true. (Until then Wise, in futility as it turned out, attempted to get help for the Polish Jews through other government channels.) Once again in September, news of the fate of Polish Jews came from a Yiddish language newspaper the Jewish Morning Journal when it published an account by a Swedish businessman who maintained that half of the Jews in major Polish cities he had visited were dead.
In November 1942, the Jewish Frontier published by the Labor Zionist Alliance devoted this issue to a critical examination of all the stories coming out of Europe and came to the conclusion that genocide was the goal of the Hitler:
In the occupied countries of Europe a policy is now being put into effect, whose avowed object is the extermination of a whole people. It is a policy of systematic murder of innocent civilians which in its dimensions, its ferocity and its organization is unique in the history of mankind.
On November 24 Undersecretary Welles summoned Wise to Washington and confirmed the truth of the now multiple reports on a German plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. That evening Wise called a press conference to announce to the world the horrible news. Here is the complete New York Times November 25, 1942 coverage of that event:
WISE GETS CONFIRMATIONS;
Checks With State Department on Nazis' 'Extermination Campaign'
Dr. Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said tonight that he had learned through sources confirmed by the State Department that about half the estimated 4,000,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had been slain in an “extermination campaign.”
Dr. Wise, who is president of the American Jewish Congress and chairman of a committee composed of representatives of leading Jewish organizations in America, said that the Germans were “even exhuming the dead for the value of the corpses.” Dr. Wise spoke at a press conference soon after he had conferred with State Department officials.
He stressed the fact that most of his information came from various sources other than the State Department. He said that his committee had deliberately awaited conformation before making public any report on its investigations since it was organized on Labor Day [an American holiday on the first Monday in September].
“The State Department finally made available today the documents which have confirmed the stories and rumors of Jewish extermination in all Hitler-ruled Europe,” Dr. Wise said.
Dr. Wise, accompanied by his son, James Waterman Wise, planned to leave Washington tonight for New York, where he will meet with the Jewish Committee tomorrow afternoon, after which a report of the European conditions will be issued.
This 224 word article appeared on page 10. It made no attempt, by the way, to add details about the information that Wise had received, other than “exhuming the dead for the value of the corpses.” (It was the reporting of the Holocaust news in small articles and not on the front page that inspired the title for the book Buried by The Times The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper by Laurel Leff.)
Except for the Jewish press, the pattern in the New York Times of small articles located in the back pages was followed by other papers as well. Among the periodicals only the Nation and The New Republic both magazines of the left wrote articles denouncing the German perpetrators and demanding government action. Other popular news magazines such as Time, Newsweek and Life ignored the slaughter of European Jewry.
Finally it is worth mentioning a set of advertisements that appeared in the New York Times in early 1942. Sponsored by a small group of Palestinian Jews living in America but associated with the militant Irgun movement in Palestine, the advertisements referred to a bizarre offer made by the Romanian government to give Jewish refugees captured in Romania their freedom and transportation to Palestine on Vatican flagged ships for a price of approximately $130 per person. Peter Bergson (alias Hillel Kook) used this proposed deal as a fund-raising opportunity and ran a three-quarter page advertisement in the New York Times, written by Pierre van Paassen and Ben Hecht with the bold headline:
FOR SALE to humanity
GUARANTEED HUMAN BEINGS AT $50 A PIECE
Although the offer from the Romanian government was never accepted, in part because the money would end up in German hands and also because neither the British nor the Americans wanted the Jewish refugees, nevertheless it is interesting that the Times would run the advertisement at all. Apparently the editorial staff was not completely afraid of Jewish advocacy.
1) Although the Nazis established hundreds of concentration camps some for political prisoners, some for slave labor, some as transportation stations, six were designed for mass exterminations. Can you name them? Where are they located? How many people did they kill? (the names of the six camps are at the bottom)
2) In our time with cell phone cameras, and the Internet how hard do you think it would be to keep genocide secret?
3) The mass murders that occurred against the Tutsi people in Rwanda was not a secret. It was covered by the press. Why do you think the murders still happened?
4) Perhaps the most difficult problem facing the United Nations is whether or not to intervene when a country permits the mass killing of its own citizens. How would you argue in favor of rescuing/protecting these people? How do you argue that mass killing is genocide as opposed to ethnic-cleansing where murder occurs?
5) Can you think of any post WWII mass killings that escaped public notice or were not highly publicized? How about Cambodia?
6) In 1944 Germany was clearly in retreat from Russia in the East and in Italy. Allied forces enjoyed air supremacy starting in March 1944. In fact, the 15th U.S. Army Air Force based in Italy had the capability to bomb railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz starting in May of that year. Had it done so, it could have saved the lives of Jews being deported from Hungary. Yet the U.S. government refused requests from Jewish leaders in America to bomb the tracks or even the camp itself. Why? And what does this say about the power of public opinion to influence government policy?
7) Form groups of students who represent Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and Bosnia and explain what the reasons are for the genocide or ethnic-cleansing that occurred there.
8) Television reception by satellite dishes is difficult for governments to block. And so during the Bosnian war, numerous Serbian families could watch the war in Bosnia every night via CNN and other news outlets. Do you think this coverage had any effect on the perception of the war by people who watched it? What is your evidence?
9) Examine current newspaper and television reports about ethnic strife in Kyrgyzstan? Do they explain what’s happening? Do they explain why people are being murdered?
Answer to question 1: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno