Even today, years after this scandal first unfolded in print, embarrassing surprises emerge in any account of The New York Times and the Holocaust. The strange truth is that in the 1940s the leading American newspaper did not treat Hitler's murder of the Jews as a big event. And the eminence of the Times meant its attitudes spread to other media and influenced public opinion.
A reader working carefully through the Times each day might have gleaned a version of the truth but most stories about Jewish persecution were tucked away in obscure corners. Often, Jews weren't even identified as Jews; the Times would report instead that a certain number of Germans or Poles had been killed. In 1945, when Bergen-Belsen was liberated, the Times declined to put the story on page one and omitted the word "Jew" from four of the five inside-page accounts that appeared, though 40,000 of the 55,000 surviving inmates were Jews.
Clearly, the Times wanted to ignore the Jews as much as possible. This seems almost unbelievable. The paper was owned by Jews and its readers included many Jews. How could it bungle this of all stories?
Laurel Leff of Northeastern University addresses that question in Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge University Press), a superbly researched work that seems to me one of the most devastating books ever written about a newspaper.
Two weeks ago the Times carried a review by Robert Leiter, literary editor of a Philadelphia weekly. While acknowledging the quality of Leff's research, he called her prose graceless (that seems wrong to me) and criticized her failure to provide context -- which, he implied, would make the blunder of the Times less shocking. Actually, Leff furnishes abundant context. In fact, it's the context that throws a particularly unpleasant light on her chief villain, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher from 1935 to 1961.
Sulzberger was so anxious that the Times not be seen as "a Jewish paper" that he insisted his editors play down everything Jewish. His feelings about his German-Jewish background were ambivalent and he did not want to endanger the Americanization of families like his own. (Two years ago, New York magazine reported that his grandson, the current publisher, raised as an Episcopalian, "gets annoyed when people assume that just because he's from one of the great New York Jewish families, he is Jewish.")
In the 1940s these attitudes were not limited to Sulzberger. The most respected columnist in America (not a Times writer in those days) was Walter Lippmann, like Sulzberger a descendant of German Jews. During Hitler's reign Lippmann never mentioned the Holocaust.
Leff begins her book by noting a five-paragraph story that ran on page four on March 2, 1944. In the British House of Commons a Labour member had read out a report from a Jewish committee somewhere in Poland on the systematic killing of the Jews: "In our last moment before death, the remnants of Polish Jewry appeal for help ... May this, perhaps our last voice from the abyss, reach the ears of the whole world."
As Leff says, that story alone (it was one of many) should have made the Times editors realize they were hearing about a historic catastrophe that required major coverage. "But no one at the Times did, not on that day or any of the 2,076 days of the European war."
It's now acknowledged that Walter Duranty, the Times Moscow correspondent from 1921 to 1934, filled his reports with lies to make Stalinism look relatively benign. He even denied the existence of the government-made famine that caused the death by starvation of at least five million and possibly 10 million Ukrainians, till then the worst genocide in history.
For all this he received the Pulitzer Prize, but in the Times building, where Pulitzers are proudly displayed, an apologetic notice has been added to Duranty's citation: "Other writers in The Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage."
The Holocaust coverage was more shameful than Duranty's work because it involved the intellectual corruption of an entire institution rather than one writer and a few gullible editors. Max Frankel, a former executive editor, wrote in 2001 that the handling of the Holocaust was a "staggering, staining failure." But it's hard to imagine how the Times could make an apology like the one attached to Duranty's Pulitzer. It would require a sign placed on the front of the building, and another on the door to the publisher's office.