In the consciousness of the West, World War II is seen as a struggle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil, where the noble West, with the help of the Red Army, overcomes inhuman ideology. The main goal is to save the Jews from the Holocaust, perpetrated by the “Nazis”, in cooperation with local collaborators, raised in a primitive culture filled with anti-Semitism. This legend has little to do with the truth – writes Jan ŚLIWA
.First, it does not include the fight for more material things, such as the German Lebensraum and spheres of influence. Secondly, the Jewish cause did not exist in the general consciousness, or at least not as an important topic. Anti-Semitism in the West was so widespread that at elite universities in the United States numerus clausus for Jews was still in force in the 1950s, i.e., long after the war. The extermination of the Jews was not an important topic, actually no topic at all, as information about it was deliberately blocked.
Laurel Leff describes the ignoble role of the New York Times in „Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s most important newspaper” (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
In the 30s and 40s of the last century, New York Times had the reputation of the most reliable newspaper in the US, if not in the world. It had an extensive network of correspondents and made effort to provide verified information from first-hand sources. In the task of presenting the Holocaust to the American public, it failed completely.
It is epitomized by the case of the dramatic appeal from Poland from March 1944: “Last month we still reckoned the number of Jews in the whole territory of Poland as from 250,000 to 300,000. In a few weeks, no more than 50,000 of us will remain… May this, perhaps our last voice from the abyss, reach the ears of the whole world.” This note has been read in the House of Commons by MP Silverman. This appeal has been published on page four, among 13 other pieces, concerning British expenditure and similar matters. The world has not heard this appeal.
True, in the period 39-45 NYT published 1186 pieces about the fate of Jews, 17 per month, but information about the Holocaust appeared on the first page only 26 times, and only in six cases Jews were indicated as the main victims. Never the goal was to really alert the world. Why?
NYT was owned by the Jewish families Ochs and Sulzberger. The editor-in-chief was Arthur Hays Sulzberger. It was the time when the Zionist idea developed, assuming that Jews were a separate nation that desired its own state. Not necessarily in Palestine, maybe in Africa or even in some corner of the USA. Reformed Jews, including Sulzberger, opposed this idea. They believed that the Jews were not a nation but a religion and any attempt to treat them differently than other US citizens could only be harmful to them. This treatment of Jews like anybody else also applied to European Jews. The problem was that Hitler treated the Jews — without asking them — as a very special ethnic group. We should not forget that the United States was neutral and entered the war only in December 1941. All this time American newspapers had correspondents in Germany and in the occupied countries, although access to Poland was bad, and the NYT correspondent, Jerzy Szapiro, as a Jew, left Warsaw in 1939.
Since 1933, Jews were increasingly persecuted, but NYT merely included them in the overall picture of the growing terror. In addition, this picture was mitigated – America had standard relations with Germany, and Americans of German descent were a strong group in the economy and as voters. This reluctance to accept the special situation of the Jews was almost obsessive. The author quotes Sulzberger’s letter in which he declares to all and sundry that he does not subscribe to the thesis that “all Jews are brethren.”
An additional factor was striving for the credibility of the information provided. Of course, news about the persecutions was coming to America, after all, many Jews had families in Europe. But such private information can be considered anecdotal. Moreover, Sulzberger considered information from Jewish sources (such as JTA, Jewish Telegraphic Agency) as biased. The war conditions did not allow to obtain reliable information by comparing many independent sources. However, while the statement “no figures are available here on Jewish massacres in Nazi-occupied areas except those furnished by refugees and occasional newspaper correspondence from Germany” is true, saying “they permit any conclusion one wants from 100,000 to 1,500,000” is clearly contemptuous.
Doubts about their credibility were increased by the experience of the First World War when information about the atrocities of the German enemy (the Huns) was often exaggerated or invented. That’s why millions of victims looked like a fantasy, less credible than if they were thousands.
So finally, it turns out that it is easier to hide a gigantic massacre, the size of which exceeds human imagination. This also suggests that promoting poorly documented giant numbers is in fact counterproductive to the victims.
NYT has always tried to emphasize the suffering of many nations, not only the Jews. This broader view is basically correct. We can often hear now opinions that only the suffering of Jews is worth mentioning, and others – especially the Poles – just want to profit from the status of the victims. There is no way to agree with such a view, as every Polish family suffered losses during the war. However, the notorious Kristallnacht specifically concerned Jews, as did racial segregation using the Nuremberg Laws, also Jewish property was confiscated and “aryanized.” At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the extermination of Jews has been decided, known as the “final solution of the Jewish question”, and it was Jews who subsequently were sent to the gas chambers. Of course, the Third Reich had plans to determine the fate of other nations. The Germans have already begun to solve the Polish question, as Poles lived in the future German living space (Lebensraum), but the still needed Polish slave labour slowed down their extermination. However, pretending during the war that nothing special happens to the Jews was at least strange.
Sulzberger also did not want NYT to be seen as a Jewish newspaper. The problem was that it was known anyway who the owner was, so if the NYT did not emphasize the tragedy of the Jews, then one could get the impression that even for them it was not so important, and so it was even easier for others to ignore the problem. And as a newspaper of this reputation, it was able to give weight to the topic.
The title on the first page of NYT, wide across all columns, meant that the topic was of primary importance. Why did this not happen? I often find the argument that anti-Semitism in America was a problem.
The Germans intensely suggested that the Allies were in fact fighting in the interests of the Jews, although they could build a great new Europe with Germany instead. Evidently, this option regarded only the Western Allies, not the Slavic subhumans in the East. The Allied governments, including Churchill’s England and de Gaulle’s France, did everything not to be stigmatized as Jewish puppets. For Americans, the point was that the Jews wanted to get them into (their) war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war by Hitler, this argument was no more valid, but this happened only in December 1941.
As for anti-Semitism, it was highly present in all countries. Anti-Jewish pamphlets, such as “La France Juive” by Edouard Drumont were readily available. However, words and deeds are not the same. Assessing the feelings of society depends strongly on the formulation of the questions. If we ask: “Do Jews play a big role in the world of finance?” (with a suggestion that it is too big) then it is enough to collect the names of the treasury secretaries and heads of the Federal Reserve to clearly say yes. It’s just a fact – can a fact be anti-Semitic? In turn, the question “Do you consider the data on the persecution of Jews exaggerated?” already suggests an answer. Frequently cited data come from studies commissioned by Jewish organizations in America whose problem was whether threats present in Europe would not propagate to them. The goal was to alert people to the danger, and this produced bias. Next – if we ask about Jews, do we mean local (American) or European? Questions “Do you like Jews” and “Would you help a Jew save his life” are two different matters. But if you just say “Yes, I will help” and you actually don’t risk anything, let alone your life, this question doesn’t reflect the real situation. Hoteliers were once asked “Would you rent a room to a Chinese?” and there were many negative answers. However, when a Chinese guest appeared, he was served normally. Again, words and deeds are not the same.
Has nothing been done at all? There were attempts. In the spring of 1943, more and more information about systematic extermination came via private channels from Europe and Jewish organizations decided to speak out. On March 1st, 1943, the American Jewish Congress organized a meeting in the Madison Square Garden under the slogan “Stop Hitler now!” The hall gathered 21,000 people, a further 75,000 did not find space in it. The meeting received wide coverage, and NYT published an editorial. A few large demonstrations followed, and the topic became public. Finally, the State Department and the British Foreign Office decided to organize a conference on the Jewish issue in Bermuda. It took place on 19-30.4.1943 and decided that larger transports of Jews (“refugees” according to NYT) were impossible, Palestine could not be used as a place of escape, and the Allies did not intend to negotiate with the countries of the Nazi Axis about the deportation of Jews or to improve their fate. NYT refrained from criticism. Of course, the completely unsuccessful Bermuda Conference, like the previous conference in Évian 1938, was a tasty treat for German propaganda.
Losing last hope and trying to at least draw the world’s attention, Szmul Zygielbojm, a member of the National Council of the Republic of Poland in London, committed suicide after the Bermuda Conference. He wanted to protest so against the indifference of Western countries, which he accused of complicity in the crime. It did not help much: the information appeared along with the text of his farewell note – on page 7.
At the same time, the Ghetto Uprising was going on. A few days after its outbreak, on April 22, 1943, a short note about the alarming radio report from Warsaw appeared on the first page. In the meantime, here and there some information appeared, and in the autumn an editorial, in which the word “Jew” was not used anywhere. “400,000 people” were deported to Treblinka.
Still in October 1943, three days before Yom Kippur, a delegation of over 400 rabbis tried to get to the White House, but President Roosevelt slipped out of the back door and the rabbis were received by the vice president. The Jewish Daily Forward commented: “Would a delegation of 500 Catholic priests be treated this way?” We see how different the times were then.
We have mentioned above the topic of the departure of the Jews from occupied Europe. Apparently, the Germans considered the transport option to some faraway place, for example to Madagascar, controlled by the French collaborating regime of Vichy. Was this option, not a fantasy? We will not find out, because especially after the successes of the Allies in Africa and gaining control of sea routes by them, it ceased to be relevant. Palestine remained, in a sense, a natural solution. But again… The British were not interested, and the Jews already living there have seen a massive further inflow as a problem and a source of conflict with the Arabs. In addition, in America, there was a sharp dispute between supporters of Zionism, promoting establishing a Jewish state (in Palestine or elsewhere), and supporters of assimilation who treated Jewry as a religion, not a nation. Arthur Sulzberger was definitely on the side of assimilation, as a strong support to the cause of the Jews in the world could impair their position in America. NYT presented arms transfers to Palestine as a criminal activity and even wrote that nationalist and racial indoctrination led by the Jewish Agency is reminiscent of the Nazi philosophy. Of course, we know that in Palestine a new conflict was brooding, not solved until now, so maybe NYT’s relations should be considered fair, but on the other hand, in Europe, the Final Solution was in full swing.
After the Wannsee conference, extermination reached industrial scale and every day was important. In this context, slowness, or rather reluctance to do anything is shocking. The official version stated that winning the war was the best way to help Jews and no other action was necessary.
And it was so until the end. Even the victims and the liberated prisoners of the concentration camps were referred to as “political prisoners, slave workers and civilians of many nationalities.” Again – this memory of other nationalities is respectable but avoiding the word “Jew” is still incomprehensible. Because of the importance of NYT in shaping American public opinion, this resistance to presenting the suffering of Jews had concrete consequences. Omitting this topic made it easier for authorities to avoid any action. Not only the press influenced the operation of the government. Also, institutions such as the Office of Censorship or the Office of War Information defined what to write about and how. One of the recommendations was “a Semitic problem should be avoided.” This is not the subject of the book, but we know that also Stalin, an important ally, must have been portrayed as benevolent Uncle Joe. Propaganda was more important than truth.
All this can be somehow understood when the primary goal was the victory and not seeking the truth. However, one can see how radically different the current picture of war is, where saving Jews from the Holocaust is seen as the primary goal of the noble Allies. This belief has been deeply instilled, as evidenced by the endless discussions about the participation of Poles in the Holocaust, so massive and organized that it can be used to accuse the whole nation and the Polish state. Finally, somebody has to be guilty. Germans are renamed to the same ephemeral “Nazis”, so Poles are an adequate candidate, especially that the massacre happened on the occupied Polish territory. Even the lack of action (passive bystanders) is enough to accuse of complicity, all the easier when the accuser is sitting on the comfortable sofa and never has been confronted with any risk. In this narration, the Poles are the villains, whereas all others did everything in their power. This picture is completely false, but it is easier to break the atom than human prejudice, as Einstein remarked.
* * *
.An important point in the Holocaust discussion is who knew what and when. One aspect is the public knowledge; another is what did the authorities knew and what they did with this information. The flow of information on the Holocaust is discussed in detail in Michael Fleming’s “Auschwitz, the Allies and Censorship of the Holocaust” (Cambridge University Press, 2014). The book is well documented, the author also uses Polish sources what considerably expands his horizon. Even the fate of individual documents is presented.
Analyzing the reasons for blocking information by media, he quotes after Kalb (“Introduction: journalism and the Holocaust 1939-45”):
1. The Nazis attempted to conceal their actions.
2. The Allies were intent on winning the war (consideration of the destruction of Europe’s Jews was a ‘side’ issue)
3. Anti-Semitism in the West undermined efforts to publicize Nazi atrocities against Jews and respond supportively.
4. The crime was so enormous that it was ‘unbelievable’.
5. The story of the Holocaust was an inside story. The front page is not a good place for objective, balanced information.
Fleming examines many specific aspects of this process. He begins with sources coming out of Poland. Direct radio information had to be short due to German tracking of the radio senders. Longer reports were sent by a courier, e.g., via Sweden, but the transport took weeks and was risky. Furthermore, there was no special interest among recipients, therefore with time Poles also reduced the quantity of such information. Then comes the problem of credibility. Anecdotal information about individual events is easier to acquire but is less reliable. On the other hand, preparing a solid report under occupation conditions requires time and effort. Another problem for the reception was the general attitude towards Poland. From 1941 on, USSR has become the principal ally in the East. It also actually took the greatest burden of fighting. From Dunkirk 1940 to landing in Italy 1943, there were no Allied soldiers on the continent. And Stalin did not spare Red Army blood for victory.
Poland began to be seen as a troublemaker, especially after the disclosure of the Katyn massacre, perpetrated by the Soviets, then allies of Hitler, in 1940. Hence, the role of Poland had to be reduced and its reputation smeared. Therefore, “Polish anti-Semitism” was closely watched.
The author quotes papers analysing Polish-Jewish relations during the war, but honestly: in the face of widespread fear of the German occupier and the death penalty for helping Jews, considering, whether Jews were for Poles in the “universe of obligation” seems academic. But the search for Polish anti-Semitism was profitable to everybody, especially since it diverted attention from anti-Semitism at home.
And this problem begins with the question of how homogeneous society should be. Diversity was certainly not desirable. The 1905 Alien Act defined who could settle in Great Britain. The real problem was the excess of poor newcomers from the East, to a large extent of Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia. They were expected to assimilate, also in appearance and behaviour. On the other hand, as in America, already assimilated Jews were afraid if they could keep their social status. Because the new Jews were different, also poor, they were said to “bring anti-Semitism with them.” They were also far to the left of the political spectrum, which was a liability at this time. Moreover, of course, a society that suffered during the Great War, first fearing another war, then fighting and hiding from German bombs during the Blitz, was hardly open to strangers. The author also gives examples of anti-Semitism in the US and this is not just about a certain antipathy. Rare information about the persecution of Jews in Europe rather intensified this anti-Semitism, because it could force them to take some action that no one wanted to do.
Therefore, the Jewish issue was rarely addressed. Anyway, even before the war, it was not stressed because of the will to maintain proper relations with the Third Reich. In the years 1933–38, the BBC did not send a single broadcast about it. When Jews were mentioned, they were referred to as a political minority, and German actions were rationalized as a result of Jewish behaviour.
During the war, there was formal censorship: The Ministry of Information and the Political Warfare Executive. Also, in the USA, the Office of Censorship and analogous one in Canada have been established – they all cooperated intensively. Official censorship was assisted by self-censorship. In this way, the scope of topics discussed in public and the way they were presented were defined in advance by the current policy.
And the Poles did what they could. One of the information transfer points was the Polish mission in Berne, representing in neutral Switzerland the exiled Polish government in London. It was led by Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś. The famous courier of the Polish Home Army, Jan Karski may have stayed there during his mission in 1942. In this place, false Latin American passports for Jews were issued that saved thousands of lives. Among those rescued in this way were the later French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France and the family of a member of the British House of Lords, Daniel Finkelstein. Although every life is equally important.
.To sum up, let’s give voice to the author: “Many officials in the Foreign Office did not sympathize sufficiently with those seeking to aid European Jews, or with European Jews themselves, to alter policy and take into account the Nazi genocidal program. Above all, British and American ‘raison de guerre’ triumphed. But the cost was high. In the spring and summer of 1944, with the full knowledge of the Allied powers, Hungarian Jewry was sent to its doom by the Nazis. Western governments looked on as European Jews were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau”.