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

by Laurel Leff. Cambridge University Press, 2005, xxi + 426 pages, $29 (hardcover).

Jewish secularism did not exist for Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times from 1935 until his semi-retirement in 1961. Time and again, Laurel Leff makes Sulzberger’s position explicit: “Being Jewish was solely a religious, not a racial or ethnic orientation, he maintained, that carried no special obligation to help fellow Jews.” (13). Sulzberger never asked himself whether there would have been a special obligation to help Jews had he felt that being Jewish was a racial or ethnic orientation He would have said no in any event.

But what about helping fellow human beings? Sulzberger maintained that Jews were exactly like everyone else. (12) Shouldn’t one help anyone who is in danger? Sulzberger probably would have agreed. Unfortunately, another factor was at work. He was afraid of an anti-Semitic backlash. Anti-Semites make a number of charges against Jews. One of them is vulgarity, something Sulzberger worried about, as he wrote in 1930: “A vulgar Christian is merely someone who does not concern me — a vulgar Jew is a direct charge upon me. I am being judged with him according to the standards of my fellow Americans.” (23) There were accusations even more serious than vulgarity. Some were obviously false, like the charge that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make matzos. Others were clearly true, like the assertion that Jews owned influential newspapers, in particular, The New York Times.

Vulgarity and influence are two very different charges. Jewish anti-Semites tend to focus on vulgarity. Walter Lippmann, who was not connected with The New York Times, was a Jewish anti-Semite. In 1922, he said, “The rich and vulgar and pretentious Jews of our big American cities … are the real fountain of anti-Semitism…. You cannot build up a decent civilization among people who, when they are at last, after centuries of denial, free to go to the land and cleanse their bodies, now huddle together in a steam-heated slum” cited in Ronald Steel’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century. How one can be rich and vulgar and pretentious and reside in a slum is not explained. Perhaps he considered Central Park West a slum. Lippmann did not take his own advice and go to the land to cleanse his body. Nor did he ever praise the socialist kibbutzniks who did so. Lippmann’s analysis reflects not only prejudice but stupidity, something I find quite hard to understand. I remember, when I was a student in Paris in 1958, joining other Americans studying at the Sorbonne at a sidewalk café and reading Lippmann’s columns aloud to each other from the International Herald Tribune. We admired his intelligence, his clarity, the accuracy of his analysis. It was a shock to learn about his shallow fear of being taken for a vulgar Jew who lived in an apartment with steam heat.

Anti-Semites who are not Jewish typically consider Jews a threat and so focus on Jewish power. Influence is not the same thing as power; indeed, having a great deal of influence and very little power is a dangerous situation. Arthur Hays Sulzberger knew this. Had the Times been really powerful, instead of merely influential, Sulzberger might very well have tried to save more Jews. There was a Jew whom Sulzberger saved. Her name was Bertha Sulzberger, a 68-year-old distant cousin related by marriage. She was one of many refugees from Germany living in a camp in France “with not enough water and practically without food supply,” as reported by the Times. (86) Many of these refugees already had American visas, but the American consulate in Stuttgart, where many of the visas had been obtained, would not release their papers, and so they had to go through the process again, as reported in the Times. (88) The Times reported the story but never questioned the fact that American consulates in Europe were making it extremely difficult for people to get visas and for people who already had visas to be able to use them.

France’s Vichy government wanted the refugees to leave and go to America, but Secretary of State Cordell Hull said that it couldn’t accept them because “no distinctions shall be made between refugees on grounds of race, nationality or religion.” Leff tells us, “In an editorial — the only one that addressed the plight of Jews in France although it never referred to Jews — the Times defended the State Department’s position.” (92) Sulzberger, in the meantime, had $2,000 deposited in a bank in Havana, and a Cuban visa for Bertha was issued. Unfortunately for Bertha, the visa was issued in Lisbon, and the nearest port was Marseilles, and there were months more of red tape. When Bertha received her papers, there was a new problem. “The State Department had instructed its diplomatic and consular officers to deny visas to anyone who had parents, children, a spouse, or siblings living in territories controlled by Germany, Italy, or Russia.” (97) Once again, the Times editorially defended this needless, cruel position. Bertha, luckily, no longer had living relatives in any of these countries and so was allowed to enter Cuba and eventually got to the United States. How awful that one was “lucky” not to have any more living relatives in Europe during World War II.

Bertha’s son, Fritz Sulzberger, who had come to the United States before his mother’s internment and eventual rescue, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times complaining about the fact that Jews refugees from Germany were being considered enemy aliens: “But who are these aliens? Were they not the first victims of Hitlerism? Did they not lose home, profession, friends and everything which makes life worth living through the brutality of Hitler Germany …. Will they never find rest?” Arthur did not publish his cousin’s letter, feeling it not be wise to publish such a letter from “a man who is not yet a citizen.” (100-101)

Unlike Walter Lippman, Arthur Hays Sulzberger was not a Jewish anti-Semite. Instead, he was both stupid and frightened. Lippman was an intelligent man who only became stupid when he had to explain and defend his inherently stupid prejudice. Sulzberger, on the other hand, was too stupid to know that it is not true that Jews are simply people who believe in the Jewish religion. He didn’t know about anthropology and sociology, which were less a part of common discourse in his day than in ours. Perhaps he had never heard of Joseph Arthur Gobineau (1816-1882), who wrote that only the Aryan “race” possessed the supreme human virtues, or of Wilhelm Marr (1818-1904), who introduced the term “anti-Semitism” since he felt that Jews should be hated no matter what their religion. But he had certainly heard of Hitler, who was determined to exterminate Jewish atheists and Christians of Jewish descent. Still, he thought that Jews should not be singled out for rescue despite the fact that they had been singled out for persecution. Doing so would be adopting Hitler’s view that religion is not what defines Jews as Jews. Sulzberger was stupid enough to think that rescuing people from racism was the same thing as espousing racism.

And Sulzberger was scared. He was not able to think that it was morally acceptable to own an influential newspaper and to use it to save lives if the lives in questions were those of one’s own people. That would be crossing the barrier between influence and power. Jews were hated because they were viewed as powerful, and Sulzberger was afraid of being hated. He was afraid that if his power saved Jews, all Jews would be hated even more than before. Of course, if Jews had really been powerful, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened.

Could The New York Times have saved more Jews? We can never be sure. Would government policies about issuing visas and forcing Jews go reapply in distant cities have been changed if — say — the Times had not waited for two months to report the massacre at Babi Yar and had not described the victims as “no fewer than 50,000 Russians and Ukrainians”? The Times was being misleading. The victims were Russians and Ukrainians, of course, but they were killed because they were Jews and because Jews were being exterminated, not because they were enemy nationals who happened to get in the way. Would the public have sympathized with the Jews or turned against them? We know that after the knowledge of Hitler’s policies became more widespread, in particular, after the Eichmann trial in 1961-62, sympathy for the Jews and horror at what the Nazis had done increased. In fact, today anti-Semites often feel they have to deny that the Holocaust took place.

One incident is described in which publicity almost helped. A group of 232 rabbis had visas to go to Latin America but had to travel through the United States. Their passports had been forged and the State Department declared them invalid. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau felt the rabbis should be allowed to escape nevertheless. He contacted Sulzberger, who would not help. He then got in touch with Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, who leaked the story to Washington columnist Drew Pearson. Pearson broadcast the story on his radio program, and the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, gave in and recognized the visas. It was too late; the rabbis had been shipped to the death camps. (261-62) If Sulzberger had acted, if the story had appeared earlier, 232 lives might have been saved.

Sumner Welles, who tried to publicize what was happening to the Jews and to save them, was himself a victim of prejudice. He was gay. A scandal broke, but the press did not dare report it because people did not speak of homosexuality in those days. Welles resigned because of the combination of the lurking scandal and his rivalry with Secretary Cordell Hull. Thus, two different taboos worked against rescuing Hitler’s victims: being pro-Jewish in the case of Sulzberger and being gay in the case of Welles.

On March 20, 1944, the German Army marched into Hungary, where there were still 800,000 Jews. President Roosevelt, after much prodding, issued a statement condemning “one of the blackest crimes in all history … the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe.” (267) The next day, Roosevelt’s statement appeared on the front page of the Times. The Office of War Information beamed broadcasts to Hungary and elsewhere “urging citizens not to participate in the persecution of Jews and to record the names of those who did.” (279) Apparently it worked, at least for a while. In July, the Hungarians stopped deporting Jews. Then the Germans moved into Budapest in late August and started the deportations again. The hiatus made a difference. The Nazis never quite finished the job of taking the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz.

The United States was able to save some of the Jews of Budapest by threatening the perpetrators. This was in 1944, when millions had already been killed. Could the United States have acted in other ways? Primo Levi, in the chapter called “Cerium” of his wonderful set of memoirs The Periodic Table, writes that he and his fellow prisoners were delighted when the allies bombed the chemical plants at Auschwitz because they knew the raids were directed against the Nazis and not the prisoners. If the chemical plants could be bombed, why not the crematoria and the gas chambers? Why not the railroad lines leading to the camp? What if there had been more publicity? What if the Times had featured news about the extermination of the Jews? Would American policy have been different?

The Times, as a matter of fact, ran very many stories about what we now call the Holocaust. They were almost never on page 1, the editorial page, or the Week in Review. They hardly ever mentioned the word “Jew.” Leff writes, “In fact, from September 1939 through May 1945, the Times published 1,186 stories about what was happening to the Jews of Europe, or an average of 17 stories per month.” (2) I was four when America entered the war and eight when it was over. I knew that my father, who had a brother and four sisters living in Krakow, never expected to see them again. I knew that one of my cousins, Zygmunt, had gotten out of Poland and was alive in the Soviet Union. He wrote letters to my parents, at first in Polish, and then when I was old enough to write to him myself, letters to them and to me in English, which he knew quite well. He now lives in Israel and we still correspond, by e-mail, in English. If I, a child, knew, why didn’t everybody? But then, my parents and I hadn’t gotten our information from the Times.

Repeating and featuring a story makes a great deal of difference. How many people know about the massacre of between 500,000 and one million communists in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966? Very few. How do I know? I read it in the Times long ago. The news was there, but it wasn’t featured and wasn’t reported often enough. How many people know about the starvation of between 30 and 60 million people in China between 1959 and 1961? Not many, although the information is available and has appeared in articles and books, among them Hungry Ghosts by Jasper Becker. If the citizens of Nepal knew about the famine, the Maoist movement there would have no support. If the citizens of China knew that the famine was caused by Chairman Mao’s policies during the Great Leap Forward and not by a natural disaster, China would have a different government today. The Times still could run op-eds and magazine articles about this famine. The news would then get to China.

After the war was over, Arthur Hays Sulzberger was still a frightened fool. Leff writes, “He ended his membership in the old Spanish and Portuguese synagogue his forefathers founded because the congregation sang Hatikva at a gathering, and resigned as a trustee of Emanu-El.” (328) A distant relative of the Ochs family, Sulzberger’s in-laws, named Elsbet Midas Gerst, had written an account of her family’s flight to Holland, her years there, her capture, her 10-day train ride to Auschwitz without food or toilet facilities, and her rescue by the Soviet Army. No other complete telling of the World War II experiences of a single person had been published at that time. Other Ochs relatives sent this to Sulzberger, who forwarded it to the magazine editor with a note saying, “You will be interested in this, although I don’t suppose there is any news value in it.” (318) That was the end of that. Leff’s summary of Gerst’s account (294-95) suggests that a copy still exists. The Times could still run it in the magazine section. Perhaps some other publication (Jewish Currents?) could ask for a copy and print it.

Today, genocide is taking place in Darfur, but the Holocaust is over. However, there are people calling for the extermination of the Jews. One of them is the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who, according to WorldNetDaily (October 23, 2002), has said “if they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” The same Nasrallah, according to a report in The New York Sun by Pranay Gupte, spits on the ground when he mentions Jews (March 14, 2005). We are not told what he does when he is indoors. Now that Syrian forces have left Lebanon, Hezbollah may possibly become an important player in the government. The Times did not write about Nasrallah’s calls for genocide in the past, but if it turns out that he gains power, his views on the subject of Jews are quite important. A report in the Jewish Week on February 4, 2005 by its Washington correspondent, James D, Besser, says that a delegation of students from a Presbyterian seminary in San Francisco met with Hezbollah leaders in last June. The Presbyterian Church has decided to divest its holdings in companies doing business with Israel — not China or Saudi Arabia or Sudan — meaning they consider Israel the worst country on earth. The Times has given little attention to this issue.

Perhaps a change has taken place. An editorial on April 22, 2005, entitled “Crosses, Crescents and Stars” refers to the fact that Israel is the only nation on earth that may not join the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The issue is in the news because the American Red Cross is exerting pressure to end Israel’s isolation. But maybe there is another reason for the appearance of this editorial. Could it be a response to Laurel Leff’s book?

A version of this review appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Jewish Currents.