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Reading Between the Lines: How The New York Times Downplayed the Nazi Holocaust

Book Essay on: Laurel Leff, Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper
( New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 426pages.
UCSB: D804.7.P73 L44 2005

by Lauren Koenig
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon

About Lauren Koenig

I am a senior Aquatic Biology major, but have recently become interested in both American and European history. My family has a German background – none of my relatives lived in Germany during WWII, but instead resided in New York. This led me to question the extent of Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust during and immediately following the war. Because of my academic interests and family background, I chose to write about the role of The New York Times in influencing Americans’ perception of the Holocaust.

Abstract (back to top)

In Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, Leff documents how The New York Times downplayed the events of the Holocaust and failed to depict European Jews as the primary targets of Nazi atrocities. She uses newspaper articles from The Times, staff correspondence, and press releases from the various Allied governments as well as press wires to prove that The New York Times deliberately dismissed these events by excluding relevant details from their stories and by burying those stories within the newspaper’s inside pages. Leff further attempts to identify the motives behind The Times’ negligent reporting. She offers compelling evidence that identifies the ambiguous religious identity of publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, staff personal biases, and the secondary importance of the Jewish story in the overall context of the war as the primary reasons why The Times buried the Holocaust story within its pages.

Essay (back to top)

German concentration camps, where European Jews were held as the primary targets of Nazi discrimination, were not liberated by Allied forces until 1945, at the close of World War II. Since then, historians have attempted to account for the delayed rescue of European Jews, who had been victims of Nazi deportation and extermination programs since the 1930s. With this knowledge, we find ourselves asking, “Were Americans aware of the Nazi programs in Germany? If so, why didn’t Allied forces implement a rescue plan sooner?” In an attempt to address these intuitive questions, Laurel Leff, professor at Northeastern University and former journalist for The Wall Street Journal, literally turns the pages of the United States’ most prominent and influential newspaper, The New York Times. Americans’ knowledge of the German Holocaust would have come primarily from media outlets like The Times, which played a critical role in shaping public opinion and even government policy in the 20th century.

Leff relies primarily on newspaper articles directly from The Times, May 1939 – September 1945, but also draws from sources including correspondence between Times editors and staff, Allied press releases, and bulletins from press wires such as the Associated Press and the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency). Leff uses this evidence to address the book’s main questions: Why did The Times downplay the events of the Jewish Holocaust, and why would the Jewish-owned institution overlook the “Jewish aspect” of these events? In her analysis, author Leff painstakingly documents how The New York Times downplayed Nazi atrocities. She offers compelling evidence to prove that the ambiguous religious identity of publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, foreign correspondents’ personal biases, and the secondary importance of the Jewish story in the overall context of the war are the primary reasons why The Times buried the Holocaust story within its pages.

Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times from 1935 to 1961, was an American Jew. He founded Columbia’s Jewish Advisory Board and served on the board of the Columbia-Barnard Hillel. According to Leff, however, “if Judaism was his faith…assimilation was Sulzberger’s religion” (Leff, 25). Sulzberger refused to join the American Jewish Committee, and refused to donate to the United Jewish Appeal or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Times’ publisher was a Reform Jew, maintaining that being Jewish was solely a religious orientation and that Jewish people did not comprise a race or ethnicity.

Sulzberger was obsessed with maintaining a nationalistic identity as he and many American Jews aimed to assimilate into mainstream society. Present-day Times contributor Robert Leiter notes, “there were many Jews who agreed with [Sulzberger], some of them even in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Anti-Zionism existed among Jews on the political left and right…” (Leiter 2005). Although Leiter is correct in saying that many American Jews denied support for the Zionist cause, I support Leff’s contention that this fact in no way justifies Sulzberger’s choices as publisher of The Times. Sulzberger’s assimilationist convictions meant that as a journalist he was “philosophically opposed to emphasizing the unique plight of the Jews in occupied Europe” because of worries that extensive coverage would cause The Times to be perceived as sympathetic to Jews, widening the cultural gap between American Jews and the rest of society (Leff, 13).

But while many American Jews agreed with Sulzberger’s anti-Zionist beliefs, by the end of the war few rallied in support of The Times’ dismissal of ongoing atrocities and its failure to identify European Jews as the primary targets of Nazi discrimination. Sulzberger soon came under fire from fellow anti-Zionists such as the non-Jewish and non-Zionist editor of Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard. Villard criticized Sulzberger in the spring of 1944, claiming that “the only possible explanation [for The Times’ dismissal of Jewish issues] is fear that its Jewish ownership will be held against it more frequently if it becomes a vigorous defender of the horribly ill-treated Jewish people” (Villard, 86). Despite increasing backlash from fellow members of the press and the Jewish community, Sulzberger never faltered in his idea that “a minority…cannot save itself through its minority status but can only be successful if it can merge its cause with a larger movement” (Leff, 221). The publisher cites this as the reason he continually denied that Jews were the primary victims of Nazi violence and in one story “…deliberately referred to persons of Jewish faith in Warsaw…as unfortunate citizens of Poland” (Leff, 221).

In reviews of Buried by the Times, The Times’ Robert Leiter and Journalism’s Dan Berkowitz cite the difficulty that American journalists faced in obtaining accurate information during the war. Leiter even asks: “How could Sulzberger or any other newspaper executive have comprehended the extent of what was happening in Europe?” (Leiter) While information was very restricted and even sometimes unreliable during war-time, Sulzberger and The Times were in a better position than any other press organization to highlight the horrors of Jewish suffering in Europe. Although Sulzberger had cancelled The Times’ subscription of the JTA press wire (the primary war-time source for information on the condition of European Jews) early in the war, The Times should have picked up dependable information from its extensive team of foreign correspondents as well as through Sulzberger’s personal ties to European Jews, several of whom he helped escape the Nazi regime by sponsoring their immigration to the United States.

The Times had an impressive team of foreign correspondents, covering more international ground than any other American newspaper of the era (Leff, 63). All of the establishment’s overseas reporters were affected by Sulzberger’s biases towards stories involving European Jews. As correspondent Neil McNeil wrote in 1940, “there is a tendency, even of the best newspapers, for the economic, political and social views of the owners to seep down through the entire organization” (Leff, 190). However, in her analysis, Leff provides compelling evidence that The Times’ correspondents facilitated the newspaper’s dismissal of the Jewish atrocities through their own personal biases and professional interests.

At the beginning of 1942, for example, just months prior to the Allied nations’ declaration publicizing the Nazis’ extermination plan, George Axelsson of the Berlin and Stockholm bureaus

wrote a seven-part series on conditions in Germany, three of which appeared on the front page…In one, he complained of the scarcity of taxis and vegetables that tasted of chemicals…, [but] never mentioned what was happening to the Jews in Germany (Leff, 138).

Leff attributes Axelsson’s dismissal of stories reporting on the condition of European Jews to a personal feud he had with Bernard Valery, a Times correspondent who had previously “…staked out his position that the Jews were being massacred” (Leff, 142). Axelsson may have felt obligated to prove Valery wrong, which explains why he often discredited available figures on Jewish massacres, stating, for example, that they “permit any conclusion one wants to make from 100,000 to 1,500,000 [killed]” (Leff, 140). From these stories, it is no wonder that the American public may not have completely trusted reports coming out of Europe.

While Leff provides accounts of personal biases that were reflected in the work of correspondents from each of The Times’ European bureaus, she also highlights the importance of Guido Enderis – chief correspondent from the Berne bureau – in the newspaper’s concealment of the Nazi massacres. Enderis, a known German sympathizer criticized for his “loud-mouthed defense of Nazism,” often denied stories of Jewish persecution (Leff, 66). It was no surprise to Times’ staff that, when members of the press were ordered by the Nazi government to leave Germany, Enderis was the only correspondent allowed to continue to reside in Berne.

As a result of personal interests on the part of The Times press staff, news coverage of the warfront took precedence over the secondary issue of Jewish persecution in Europe. Ultimately, according to Leff, “none of the reporters had the inclination…or stature to make the extermination campaign an important story for The New York Times” (Leff, 149).

Compared with other news events, the staff at The Times did not consider the extermination of European Jews to be terribly important or even newsworthy. Leff cites countless instances in which, if a Holocaust story was reported within The Times’ pages, it either was buried inside or did not focus on the plight of European Jews as the primary victims of Nazi aggression. On September 3, 1944, for example, the “Week in Review” section ran a “full page of ‘outstanding events and major trends of the second world war’” to mark the fifth anniversary of its start. Since The Times often censored or diluted stories that, to Sulzberger, implied that Jews were a race, it is not surprising that this chronology “did not once mention Jews” (Leff, 292). This article, written five years into the war, is just one example that Leff recalls to illustrate The Times’ adopted policy toward stories describing the plight of European Jews.

At The New York Times, “military news certainly diminished the importance of what was happening to the Jews” (Leff, 341). However, although The Times’ front-page featured “only six stories during the war that both described the Jews’ plight and acknowledged that Jews were the primary victims…,” other American newspapers also lacked the copious and conspicuous coverage that Jewish officials hoped would “keep pressure on the Allied governments to try to save at least some of Europe’s Jews.” These institutions likely differed from The Times in their primary motives for downplaying Holocaust stories, however. (Leff, 163). Critics argue that, because accurate information was difficult to obtain during the war, The Times included Holocaust stories in the back pages in order to avoid compromising the legitimacy of its stories (Berkowitz, 741). However, this seems unlikely: an editor’s cable “…about the June 1942 story on the Vilna massacre is the only documented instance of a Times editor expressing doubts [about the sources and nature of the information about mass murder]” (Leff, 336). Therefore, Leff leads us to conclude that The Times’ neglect of Jewish massacres stems primarily from the issues already raised, rather than from reporters’ lack of confidence in the credibility of their sources.

Although Leff focuses solely on The Times’ coverage of the Holocaust, it is important to compare Sulzberger’s coverage with that of other American newspapers. Leff’s case remains strong – for example, during April and May 1945, The Times ran only two front-page stories about the liberation of the camps…[while] The Herald Tribune ran eleven” (Leff, 301). However, coverage by other prominent newspapers was also insufficient in rousing public support, despite the increased number of front-page stories allocated to Holocaust reports. In Journalism, Dan Berkowitz offers several possible explanations for the secondary importance of Holocaust stories among American newspapers. Most importantly, The Times was the United States’ most influential newspaper; its coverage even occasionally affected opinion and policy-making within the Roosevelt administration. Berkowitz explains that other leading publishers followed the example set by Sulzberger and The Times. After all, The New York Times had the highest stake in events of the Holocaust. The newspaper easily boasted the highest daily readership of any newspaper in the country and, more importantly, was read by more American Jews than any other American newspaper. According to Berkowitz, “if The Times did not play the Holocaust as a leading, front-page issue, then other news organizations with less public status would either have to defer to The Times’ news judgment or take a professional risk by questioning its authority” (Berkowitz, 741).

Ultimately, Leff’s analysis lacks proper examination of other newspapers’ coverage and motives. In addition, she does not analyze to what extent the secondary importance of the story was based on public opinion in the United States, although she does add in her conclusion that “to some extent, journalists’ priorities likely mirrored those of other bystanders” (Leff, 341). To fully comprehend the role of the press in Americans’ perception of the Holocaust, we must utilize primary documents, public opinion polls and editorial pieces to consider the overall attitude of American society toward the war as well as toward lingering antisemitic ideals. As historians, we cannot conclude that any lives would have been spared given appropriate coverage by The Times because, from Leff’s analysis, we cannot be certain that the fate of European Jews was even within American society’s sphere of concern.

Within the context of Holocaust literature, Leff provides a thorough, insightful, and well-supported analysis proving that The New York Times and its publisher buried the events of the Holocaust within its pages. Through this analysis, she indirectly communicates the importance of being analytical and even skeptical consumers of news media. The Times’ coverage of the Holocaust is just one example that illustrates how the agenda of any media outlet can influence the coverage of news events and ultimately affect how our society, and future generations, perceive historical events.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Dan Berkowitz, “Review of Leff, Buried by The Times”, Journalism 8, no. 6(2007), pp. 740-742.

    While Sulzberger was likely guilty of subjectivity in his practice of journalism, all American journalists faced difficulties in obtaining accurate information during the war. The Times, then, did not want to compromise the legitimacy of stories, so included them in the back pages. Other newspapers followed the example set by The Times to avoid “professional risk.” For newspaper coverage,” Berkowitz adds, “objectivity became a limiting ritual rather than an element of quality assurance.”

  • Brian Kahn, “Review of Leff, Buried by The Times”, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 25, no. 2(2007), pp. 166-168.

    Kahn acknowledges that organizations other than The Times had access to the truth; Leff’s analysis caused him to determine that the newspaper distorted the truth and thus enabled the horrors that took place during the Holocaust. This reviewer concludes his review by addressing his final thoughts which question human responsibility and the powerful role of the media in American politics and society.

  • Robert Leiter, “‘Buried by The Times’: Horror Story.”, New York Times Book Review New York Times Book Review, May 15, 2005

    Leiter is quick to criticize Leff for her lack of context. He argues that the influence of the news media was not as pervasive in society in the 1930s and 1940s as it is today. She overestimated “what people knew and understood in the 1930s and 1940s.” He defends The Times’ ex-publisher by claiming that there was no way for him or any other newspaper executive to have comprehended the extent of Nazi activities.

  • Seth Lipsky, “Un-shining hour: Sulzberger and his Jewish problem.” , Columbia Journalism Review May 2005.

    This reviewer suggests that “Hitler’s war against the Jews confounded a lot of newspapers.” This is an important point within the context of Leff’ analysis because she only presents the shortcomings of The Times. Ultimately, while the motives of other newspapers did not parallel those of Sulzberger’s, it is still important to note that the American press in general failed to offer conspicuous coverage that officials of some Jewish organizations hoped would save some of Europe’s Jews.

Books and Articles

  • Robert Abzug, America Views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History Boston: Bedford, 1989. UCSB: Main Library D804.19 .A29 1999.

    America Views the Holocaust is a unique collection of primary sources including newspaper articles, speeches, letters and government documents that collectively provides readers with insight regarding what Americans knew about the Holocaust and what the general attitude among American society was. This resource would prove valuable to further analyze the role of newspapers in determining Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust as well as to journalists’ motives for downplaying its tragedies.

  • Deborah Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986. UCSB: Main Library DS135.G33 L57 1986

    Lipstadt takes one step back from Leff’s analysis by documenting the response of the entire American press to the events of the Holocaust (rather than focusing on one newspaper such as The New York Times). She makes similar conclusions as Leff, citing reporters’ cynicism and biases as reasons why, in the 1930s and 1940s, the Holocaust story was downplayed by publishing short stories with ambiguous headlines that were often hidden within the inside pages of the newspaper.

  • Robert Shapiro, Why Didn’t the Press Shout?: American and International Journalism During the Holocaust Hoboken, New Jersey: Yeshiva University Press, 2003. UCSB: Main Library D804.19 .W49 2003

    Why Didn’t the Press Shout? is a compilation of analyses written by journalism and history scholars that considers the response of the international press to the Holocaust. This book would serve useful to not only further analyze the response of American news media to the Holocaust, but also to compare the response of American news media to that of other international institutions.

  • Richard Whitaker, “We Knew it at the Time: Selected Newspaper Coverage of the Holocaust”, Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism, 1981.

    Historians since World War II have asked, “What did Americans know about the Holocaust, and when?” Many historians have proposed that Americans did not believe information that they did receive, namely because of hyperbolic anti-German propaganda used during World War I. In this presentation, however, Whitaker argues that Americans did have information concerning the Holocaust and that “Americans should not have been surprised at the horror of the liberated concentration camps.”

  • “Wise Gets Confirmations; Checks with State Department on Nazis’ Extermination Campaign”, The New York Times, ovember 25, 1942. p. 10.

    Articles directly from The New York Times are useful in understanding the importance that journalists gave to Holocaust stories, as well as in understanding how Americans’ may have interpreted news information that they received. This article represents one of the first articles in which The New York Times directly cited the Nazi extermination campaign.

Relevant Websites

  • , “Arthur Hays Sulzberger: Columbians Ahead of Their Time”

    This web page describes the life of Arthur Hays Sulzberger and can thus provide information for analysis of how his personal conflict with his religion became intertwined in the business of his newspaper. Here, Sulzberger’s accomplishments as publisher are described: he increased The Times’ circulation and prestige both in the United States and abroad. What this site demonstrates, however, is Sulzberger’s continued legacy, positive or negative.

  • Lauren Freeman (UCSB Student), “Antisemitism: The US and the Holocaust Project Group”

    This site provides information about antisemitism in America and would be useful in contextualizing some of Sulzberger’s rash journalistic practices. Freeman concludes that in the 1930s-1940s, antisemitism was still an issue in the U.S. So, many were not likely to be sympathetic to European Jews. The information presented here leads me to hypothesize that the lack of Holocaust press coverage in the U.S. was in part due to antisemitic sentiments that still prevailed in American society.

  • "Holocaust and the Nazi Era", The New York Times

    This web page provides information and articles relevant to the Holocaust, in Europe and in the United States. Many of the articles are recent – examples include several stories of survival and a biographical analysis of Anne Frank’s life. What I was hoping to get out of this web page, however, were pieces about The Times’ coverage of the Holocaust, written from the perspective of The Times. There were no such articles acknowledging the lack of news coverage dedicated to the Holocaust.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Lauren Koenig on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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