The Media

Looking Back in Anger

Reviewed by Peter Novick
Sunday, May 1, 2005


The Holocaust and America's

Most Important Newspaper

By Laurel Leff. Cambridge Univ. 426 pp. $29

During World War II, most Americans didn't pay much attention to what we now call the Holocaust. Many knew that the Nazi regime was persecuting and murdering Jews in Europe, but few had an overall grasp of the scope and nature of that genocide. In Buried by the Times, Laurel Leff puts under the microscope the coverage given to the Holocaust in the New York Times during the war. She reports that while there was, on average, a Holocaust-related story every other day, only a few dozen of those stories made the front page. Moreover, Jews were often described as "among" the Nazis' victims rather than as their primary victims. By thus "burying" the Holocaust, she charges, the Times sabotaged efforts to rouse the American public -- efforts which, had they been successful, might have produced an effective rescue program.

The tone of Leff's account is one of unremitting outrage. When the Times fails to report any Holocaust-related event, she is outraged. If the paper reports on it, she's outraged that the report isn't on the front page. When a Holocaust story is on the front page, she complains that it isn't high enough on the front page. When there is no editorial on some Holocaust-related subject, she is outraged, and if there is an editorial, she's outraged that it isn't the lead editorial. She is regularly outraged when either reportage or commentary, wherever placed, mentions not Jews alone but other victims as well. When one item made clear that a majority of those killed at a certain locale were Jews, she complains that this was noted "only once" in the story. All of this is so over-the-top as to verge on self-parody.

Other writers have offered various explanations for the failure of the American press to feature the Holocaust more prominently during the war. Sources were scanty, not always reliable, and often contradictory. Americans' attention was focused on battle zones where American troops were engaged. And there was sometimes a calculated reason for deemphasizing special Jewish victimhood. Americans were far more focused on the Japanese than on the German enemy ("Remember Pearl Harbor"). That the Nazis were the enemy of the Jews was well known; the task was to portray Nazi Germany as the mortal enemy of "free men everywhere." Hence the (sometimes exaggerated) emphasis on other victims. And, given continued high levels of anti-Semitism in the United States, not emphasizing Hitler's war against the Jews was an attempt to sidestep the claim that America was engaged in a war for the Jews.

Leff notes these and other explanations but finds them inadequate. For her, the keys to the Times's failure to live up to its journalistic obligations were the character and mindset of its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Sulzberger was a Jew of a sort now rare: a believer in the classical Reform position that Jewishness means solely religious belief -- not ethnic "peoplehood." His political loyalties were strictly American, his sensibility was liberal and universalist, and he was an opponent of the campaign for a Jewish state in Palestine. And he didn't want the Times to become -- or seem to be -- a spokesman for any parochial Jewish concern. Therefore, according to Leff, he bent over backward to deny the specificity of Jewish victimhood, refused to allow the Times to give prominent notice of the Holocaust and withheld support for rescue programs that focused on European Jewry.

This argument is not completely wrongheaded. All of us are pulled this way and that by our ways of seeing the world, and surely this was true of Sulzberger. But the great difficulty with blaming the behavior of the Times on the particularities of Sulzberger's belief system is that so many others -- Jews and gentiles, universalists and particularists, Zionists and anti-Zionists -- behaved more or less identically. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Israeli Holocaust scholar, writes that the wartime Palestinian press would "go into ecstasies about some local party-political affair, while the murder of the Jews of Europe is reported only in the inside pages." In the United States the Zionist Jewish Frontier warned against forgetting "what was done to the Czechs, the Poles, the Jews, the Russians." Universalizing the portrayal of Nazi barbarism was a common strategy to discredit the idea that the war against Nazi Germany was a war for the Jews. One can argue, as Leff does, that this concern was exaggerated, but if ever a strategy was "well meant," this was it.

Buried by the Times offers a good deal of interesting information about Times coverage of the Holocaust -- although the reader should be wary of paraphrases and truncated quotations that are sometimes tendentious. But those who would like to understand the reasons behind the Times coverage will have to await a chronicler less consumed by prosecutorial zeal. ยท

Peter Novick is the author of "The Holocaust in American Life."

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