Interview'This should have been front-page news'

As the Holocaust raged, US newspapers buried reports on Hitler’s Final Solution

In a new book, scholar Rafael Medoff shows how outlets downplayed news of the genocide until late 1943, as FDR’s government and even Jewish leaders felt little pressure to act

Ponary, Lithuania, Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried after being shot (Yad Vashem)
Ponary, Lithuania, Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried after being shot (Yad Vashem)

On June 29, 1942, the Chicago Daily Tribune devoted one paragraph to Germany’s “Final Solution” in Europe:

“The British section of the World Jewish Congress estimated today that more than 1,000,000 Jews have been killed or have died as the result of ill treatment in countries dominated by Germany,” read an Associated Press brief on page six.

Like other US newspapers that summer, the Daily Tribune allocated a bare minimum of inches to reporting on the annihilation of Europe’s Jews. Literally burying the story, dailies placed news of the slaughter away from their front pages — and usually mixed in among other news briefs.

“If the news in June 1942 about 1 million Jews being slaughtered was considered sufficiently credible to publish, then according to conventional editorial standards, it should have been treated as front-page news or something close to it,” said Rafael Medoff, author of the book “America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History,” published this year.

Like the Chicago Daily Tribune, The Los Angeles Times published the “1 million killed” Associated Press brief at the end of June. However, the milestone in Germany’s “Final Solution” was placed on page three, underneath a story about British soldiers taken captive by Germany: “Nazis Kill Million Jews, Says Survey.”

By this point in the Holocaust — the summer of 1942 — the American Joint Distribution Committee had issued a report, based on local sources, about the massacre at Babyn Yar (Grandmother’s Ravine) outside Kyiv. In graphic detail, the report described how the earth moved for days after the execution, even with the mass grave of 33,771 victims covered by several feet of sand.

After the mass murder of 33,771 Jews at Babyn Yar, Ukraine, October 1941 (public domain)

“In the spring of 1942, as the reports of mass murder multiplied and many additional details were relayed to the Free World by reliable sources, a new and disturbing picture began to emerge,” wrote Medoff, who directs the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

“But instead of questioning Roosevelt administration officials about the emerging genocide, journalists usually avoided the subject altogether,” Medoff told The Times of Israel, adding that many reporters and public officials believed reports of the slaughter were exaggerated.

This September, PBS International will air “The US and the Holocaust,” a three-part series directed by Ken Burns. Voice actors in the documentary include Hope Davis, Werner Herzog and Meryl Streep. In addition to then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the series will depict broadcaster Dorothy Thompson, a notable exception to the rule regarding American media coverage of Nazi Germany.

“Few American journalists ever questioned president Roosevelt or his senior aides about their no-rescue policy during the Holocaust,” said Medoff. “That was both an abdication of their responsibility as journalists and a moral tragedy.”

Nazi killing squad murders Jews from Vilna in the Ponary forest, 1941 (public domain)

News of what historians now call the “Holocaust by Bullets” — the genocide’s initial, open-air massacre phase — was first covered by The New York Times on October 26, 1941. A short article on page six reported that “tens of thousands” of Jews were massacred by German units in what was then the Polish region of Kamenets-Podolsk.

Between that New York Times article in October 1941 and the end of 1943, the Holocaust was framed as a series of disconnected massacres, said Medoff, as opposed to Germany’s long-channeled plan to “exterminate” the world’s Jews under cover of war.

During that same two-year period, Germany and its collaborators murdered most of the Holocaust’s 6 million Jewish victims.

‘Continuous two-week pogrom’

While US newspapers continued to report on the ostensibly unconnected massacres of Jews, Germany built six death camps in occupied Poland to “industrialize” the so-called “Final Solution” on a continent-wide basis.

Ruins of a gas chamber-crematorium facility at Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as Krematorium II, November 2015. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

In contrast to American dailies covering the genocide, Jewish media put reports of the slaughter on their covers regularly. Unfortunately, however, most Jewish communal leaders did not act decisively based on those reports, said Medoff.

On June 17, 1942, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on “a mass slaughter which has no equal in Jewish history.” An eye-witness from Lithuania’s Ponary Forest, outside Vilnius, observed a “continuous stream of trucks plied back and forth carrying more than 60,000 Jews of all ages to the execution place.”

Under the headline, “60,000 Jews executed in Vilna last month in continuous two-week pogrom,” the witness recounted how Jews were machine-gunned down after being stripped of their clothing. (Vilna was once the common English spelling of Vilnius.)

The Holocaust in Skede, Latvia, 1941 (Yad Vashem)

According to the JTA article, “it was obvious that the order to kill all the Jews came from Berlin.”

The massacres of Ponary — a suburb of Lithuania’s Vilnius — lasted for more than three years, leaving 7,000 Jews alive from a pre-war community of 80,000. During the last phase of the genocide, Jewish prisoners were forced to exhume and burn the corpses of victims.

‘Jewish leaders dragging their feet’

Although Jewish media outlets attempted to draw national attention to what was taking place in Europe, the country’s most influential rabbi and leader of several Jewish organizations, Stephen S. Wise, sometimes refrained from actively publicizing news of the massacres, said Medoff.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (public domain)

Beginning in 1942, a stream of secret telegrams and reports reached Wise, who was widely known as Roosevelt’s closest Jewish confidante. In order to “demonstrate his loyalty to President Roosevelt,” said Medoff, “Wise acquiesced in some of the administration’s efforts to downplay news about the killings.”

The so-called Riegner Telegram, which was sent to Wise from his contacts in Switzerland in August 1942, spoke of a German plan to “systematically” murder millions of Jews. The State Department asked Wise to suppress the news until it could be verified, and he agreed to do so, said Medoff.

“But [that] promise to the Roosevelt administration to temporarily withhold that telegram from the public did not require [Wise] to say nothing in public about what he knew of the mass murder from other sources,” said Medoff.

Another secret report — called the Sternbuch Telegram — was relayed to Wise and other leaders through Poland’s consulate in New York in September 1942. As with the Riegner Telegram, Wise held off on galvanizing American Jews to protest.

“It is startling to see how little attention [Wise] paid to the mass murder during September, October, and much of November of 1942, and how much he was mired in business as usual, such as Jewish organizational rivalries, local politics, and other less-than-urgent matters,” said Medoff, who wrote “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S, Wise, and the Holocaust.”

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt meets with the National Jewish Welfare Board — (left to right) Walter Rothschild, Chaplain Aryeh Lev, Barnett Brickner and Louis Kraft — at the White House on November 8, 1943. (public domain)

In Medoff’s assessment, many American Jewish leaders — along with some journalists — were sometimes reluctant to speak out too loudly against the mass murder, for fear of an antisemitic backlash in the United States.

“But it’s hard to see how there was any benefit from Jewish leaders dragging their feet,” said Medoff. “Those who presume to speak for and lead the Jewish people have an obligation to recognize when there is an emergency situation and act accordingly. When thousands of Jews were being murdered each day in Europe, every minute counted.”

By the end of 1943, America’s daily newspapers started to recognize the systematic nature of the Holocaust, as did Wise and other Jewish leaders. However, Roosevelt administration officials continued to downplay and sometimes hide reports of the slaughter, said Medoff.

“As much more information, including eyewitness reports about the mass killings, reached the outside world in 1943, American Jewish leaders began speaking out more consistently,” said Medoff. “But the Roosevelt administration routinely suppressed such reports, fearing that publicity would increase public pressure to open America’s doors to refugees.”

A gas chamber in the former German Nazi death camp Majdanek, in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

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