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Counting the Gray Lady’s Sins

‘Photos don’t normally appear on this page. But it’s time for us to look squarely at the victims of our indifference.” And with that, Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times and its op-ed page’s most morally indignant voice, used his semi-weekly space this past February 23 to hold up before our eyes the images of four dead Africans. One was of a little boy, beaten with the butt of a rifle, lying beside the corpse of his mother. Another was of a skeleton, wrists bound and legs spread, either castrated or raped in the last moments of life.

This was genocide. Four black mangled corpses against the sands of the Sudanese Sahel. If words can’t convey it, Kristof was saying, maybe photos can — the brutality, the horror, the amorality.

It was also an acknowledgment of limitations. The newspaper, with all its stories, photos, op-eds and editorials, had not cracked our apathy. Maybe this would. If Kristof could have filled every page of The Times with the bodies of the more than 300,000 Darfur victims, he probably would have. He wanted his newspaper to do more, to bleed on its readers’ complacent laps, to scream into their deaf ears.

Beneath every word of Laurel Leff’s extraordinary and thorough new study of The New York Times’s coverage of what we now call the Holocaust is this same desire — for the paper to be shocked and outraged beyond its very black-and-white bounds. The story of how and why America’s most important and influential news source suppressed and obscured the persecution and destruction of European Jewry involves a complex and unfortunate blend of elements. And Leff excavates each of them as far as one can, from the fervently held ideological beliefs of The Times’s publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, to the incompetence and skewed sympathies of its foreign correspondents, to a government propaganda office unwilling to put too much particular emphasis on the plight of Jews.

The dereliction, it turns out, was not so much an absence of reporting — the level of real time detail about the Einsatzgruppen, ghettos and gas chambers is, in fact, shocking — but rather that these thousands of murders and the genocide they so clearly outlined were never elevated and dramatized. The result was ignorance. A Gallup Poll conducted late in the war, on December 3, 1944, found that although 76% of Americans were aware that the “Germans have murdered people in concentration camps,” a majority of those polled believed the number killed to be fewer than 100,000. And The Times, as the agenda-setting paper, the leader, watched closely by both the government and other news sources, played not a small part in this collective blindness.

Placement is telling. From September 1939 to May 1945, out of 1,186 stories describing the lot of European Jewry, only six ever appeared on the front page. If one counts stories in which Jews were lumped in with other “refugees,” add 20 more. And not once, not even when Bergen-Belsen or Dachau was liberated, were any of those 26 front-page stories deemed significant enough to grab the right-hand corner saved for the day’s leading news. The record for editorials, Sunday magazine articles and Week in Review pieces was not much better.

It is exasperating to read that the most canonized of Holocaust events all appeared in the back pages, by the soap and shoe polish ads. The August 1942 State Department confirmation of an “extermination campaign” that already had swallowed up 2 million Jews was at the bottom of page 10. A World Jewish Congress Report in January 1943 uncovering that “in one place in Poland, 6,000 Jews are killed daily,” was pushed to page 39. The liquidation of the Krakow and Lodz ghettoes, page 5.

More shocking even than the chronic burying of articles with the word “Jew” in them is how often that word was rubbed out of articles that specifically dealt with the Jewish condition. It’s almost surreal at times. How could you possibly tell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising without mentioning Jews? But The Times did, describing how “500,000 persons… were herded into less than 7 percent of Warsaw’s buildings,” and how “400,000 persons were deported” to their deaths at Treblinka. As Leff put it, The Times, “when it ran front-page stories, described refugees seeking shelter, Frenchmen facing confiscation, or civilians dying in German camps, without making clear the refugees, Frenchmen, and civilians were mostly Jews.”

No uniquely Jewish tragedy was taking place. Jews were just “The First To Suffer,” as one editorial headline put it. Next would come the “Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Netherlanders, Belgians, and French.” Even the skeletal figures liberated at the end of the war were described as “political prisoners, slave laborers and civilians.” If burying stories made the unfolding horror less visible, obscuring the fact that the victims were overwhelmingly Jewish made it near impossible for the casual reader to appreciate the pattern of genocide.

That’s the indictment. And Leff spreads the blame around generously. She exposes the disturbing Nazi and Vichy attachments of a few European correspondents. She points out the problems with journalistic convention of the time, which preferred reprinting government pronouncements to digging for unknown stories. There was also, of course, a disorganized Jewish community and a Roosevelt administration too preoccupied with the war, both not pushing hard enough for front-page coverage. But the bulk of the blame, in Leff’s telling, falls squarely at the feet of The Times’s publisher, Sulzberger.

Coming out of the German-Jewish classical Reform tradition and a true believer in the assimilationist philosophy of Rabbi Isaac Wise, his wife’s grandfather, Sulzberger disavowed his connection to the Jewish people. In fact, he didn’t believe that such a people existed. Jews, in his eyes, were just a religious group. “I have been trying to instruct the people around here on the subject of the word ‘Jews’, i.e., that they are neither a race nor a people, etc.,” he wrote in a December 1942 memo to his staff. He was a rabid anti-Zionist — if Jews were not a people, they were certainly not a nation — and persisted in these beliefs long after other prominent American Jews had abandoned them.

Sulzberger expended energy and money to save members of his extended family in the early years of the war, and he could never claim obliviousness toward what was happening. He just did not believe that Jews had any special obligation to help other Jews (“Certainly there is no common denominator between the poor unfortunate Jew being driven around what was recently Poland and, let us say… myself”). In addition to this ideological perspective, he also thought, practically speaking, that Jews’ best chance at rescue was by subsuming themselves in a larger grouping of “persecuted minorities.”

Could this belief system have trickled down and informed the way the Holocaust was covered? Leff finds no secret memo, no covert recording of Sulzberger informing the staff to downplay Jewish suffering. But she assumes, and she is right to do so, that no such diktat would have been needed. Everyone knew where Sulzberger stood. And no one wanted to contradict the boss.

Leff does an admirable job of highlighting these contexts and, in the process, reverse engineering the reason why the story was suppressed. But as I read, I kept wondering about a dilemma much larger than the particular pathology of The Times in the 1940s: Can a newspaper properly convey genocide?

Imagine that The Times was run by a sensitive Jewish family who ran pictures of dead Jewish children on the front page underneath a giant, black-bordered headline, “THEY ARE KILLING ALL OF THEM.” Putting aside the question of whether this would have motivated the government to action (and there is reason to believe it wouldn’t have), could it have brought closer to home the reality of genocide, the “amorality beyond all categories of evil,” to borrow Saul Friedlander’s characterization? Surely readers would have been more concerned and shocked than they were, but wouldn’t the paper have just ended up in the garbage at the end of the day, tomorrow’s proverbial fish wrapping, ignored and forgotten?

I am not trying to be cynical. But one must wonder why, 60 years after the Holocaust, a columnist at The Times would see no other choice but to lay dead babies before us in order to make tangible a genocide we are doing nothing about. Why did it take the press so long to clarify that what was happening in Rwanda and Bosnia was not just an extension of ancient and long-standing tribal conflicts but also something new and sinister?

The problem might be one of representation as much as one of placement. How can a newspaper make the words “700,000 Jews were slain by the Nazis in Poland” more than just a distant abstraction? Does it have the tools to do this? With what words and pictures? Conceptualizing genocide — the murder of a people — involves an enormous imaginative leap, and not just a moral one, but a quantitative one, as well: seeing one in a mass of millions, and amplifying that one until the horror of millions is felt. This is not an easy thing for the human mind to do. The Times can never be absolved of its wartime negligence. Its undeniable moral failure was in not forcing the public to grapple with this information, in not assailing their eyes with it. A newspaper has this obligation, to do everything short of bleeding and screaming. But, even in the best of circumstances, it may never be able to overcome what might be the ultimate obstacle in the way of seeing genocide: the smallness of the human universe.

Gal Beckerman, a former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, is currently composing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.

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Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper

By Laurel Leff

Cambridge University Press, 432 pages, $29.

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