Journalistic Lessons of the Holocaust

May 2, 2005

Auschwitz is in southern Poland, and when I saw it in 1972 it was in the thrall of the Soviet era. The exhibits played up the Red Army’s role in liberating the place. The tour buses were full of East Germans, who were encouraged to visit so they could learn about the crimes of the Nazis who they were told still ran West Germany.

Inside the walls were lined with photographs of some of the 1.5 million people killed there. They were priests, soldiers, professors, partisans, workers, ordinary Poles. What they weren’t, were Jews. Only rarely — I remember a glass-enclosed hill of luggage, many of the pieces marked by their owners — did you see Jewish names.

Auschwitz had been re-created as a shrine to Polish nationalism, and that was a faith which, like postwar Poland, had no place for Jews.

As it happens, the place of Jews in the Holocaust was a contentious issue even while they were being murdered. That’s one of the startling conclusions of an important new book, “Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper,” by Laurel Leff, a veteran journalist (and former colleague) and professor at Northeastern University.

Leff examines the unfathomably bad job The New York Times did in reporting on the destruction of Europe’s Jews. Her findings resonate in an unexpected way now, at a time when the relationship between religion and media has emerged as a hot topic. That’s because she argues that one of the reasons for The Times’ journalistic failings lay, paradoxically, in the beliefs of the newspaper’s Jewish owners.

The record of failure seems strong. From the late-1930s through the war, the world’s most influential newspaper systematically underplayed the mounting evidence of savagery inflicted on civilians in Nazi-controlled Europe — and, seemingly deliberately, declined time and again to report that the savagery was directed primarily and overwhelmingly at Jews.

Of some 24,000 stories on The Times’ front page during the war, Leff found 44 about Europe’s Jews.

Instead, consider 1942: On March 1, a report that 10,000 people were dying each month in Polish ghettoes, at which rate “there would be no more Jews in Poland in five or six years,” ran on page 28. On June 27, at the bottom of three page 5 stories, this: “700,000 Jews were slain by the Nazis in Poland.” Three days later a London press conference estimated that one-sixth of Europe’s pre-war Jewish population was already dead. That was on page 7. In November, when the U.S. State Department confirmed the existence of the Nazi plan to annihilate all Europe’s Jews, the news was reported on page 10.

Or Jan. 27, 1943, while “250 slain resisting Nazis in Marseille” played on the front, a reader had to go to page 10 for: “Liquidation set for France’s Jews.”

The Times had its reasons — memories of bogus World War I atrocity stories, a desire to keep its Berlin bureau open, a determination to avoid being criticized for special handling.

But more disturbingly, Leff argues that The Times’ squeamishness was a by-product of the strain of Judaism embraced by its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger.

Sulzberger was wedded to the U.S. Reform Movement’s assimilationist notion that Judaism is a universally accessible religious doctrine — not the specific creed of a particular people joined by a unique culture and history. Jews, accordingly, aren’t a nation, tribe, people or ethnic group; they are individuals who subscribe to the Jewish faith.

Hence, even if Jews were apparently being singled out that couldn’t be the real story. Instead, the roundups were the first phase of a general crackdown on domestic opponents. The massacres were just a symptom of a larger Nazi brutality in the occupied countries. The victims were “civilians” or “war refugees.”

Nazi policy was not to be reported as what it was: A calculated assertion of racial lunacy, mass homicide based not on belief but on blood, an industrialized determination to wipe out an entire people.

The Leff argument offers a cautionary tale about the influence of religious conviction on how facts may be perceived, weighed and presented. It’s not so different from the faith that led Poles 30 years later to view an Auschwitz purged of the memory of Jews as a symbol of national martyrdom and rebirth.

It’s a reminder that the flipside of revelation may be distortion and concealment.

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