Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Mirror Image

At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996, Harvard professor Marvin Kalb have a lecture on The Journalism of The Holocaust.

It's a question not often asked nowadays: How did Americans fail to know the Holocaust -- murder on such a continental scale -- was happening? Perhaps it's not often asked because those whom we might expect to ask it are entangled in the answer.

On May 18, 1942, The New York Times reported from Lisbon that the Germans had machine-gunned more than 100,000 Jews in the Baltic states, another 100,000 in Poland, twice that many in western Russia. The news appeared on an inside page -- several inches of neutral copy. ... On June 30, 1942, and again on July 2, The New York Times ran reports, first published by the Daily Telegraph in London, that more than 1,000,000 Jews had already been killed by the Germans. The reports were mind blowing, but The Times again placed them on an inside page. ... [O]n July 2, 1944, The Times published what it called "authoritative information" to the effect that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to their deaths, and another 350,000 were earmarked for similar action. This news was published as four inches of copy on page 12.

Then as now, other reporters, other news organizations took their cues from The Times. Its foreign coverage set the national standard.

As the reporting and the authoritative sources piled up, the picture became clear, yet the story remained buried. In January 1943, even after the U.S. and other Allied governments had confirmed and condemned the Holocaust, a poll revealed that more than half of the American people did not believe that the Nazis were "deliberately" killing the Jews.

To answer how this could have happened, Kalb turned to Elie Wiesel.

Elie Wiesel, in a recent conversation, explained by drawing a distinction between "information" and "knowledge." On its own information meant only the existence of data. It lacked an ethical component. It was neutral. Knowledge, implied Wiesel, was a higher form of information. Knowledge was information that had been internalized, crowned with a moral dimension that could be transformed into a call for action.

For the first secretary of the World Council of Churches at the time, the Protestant theologian W. A. Visser't Hooft, the moment when information became knowledge occurred during the war when a young Swiss businessman told him of a recent trip to Russia. The businessman had been invited by Nazi officers to witness the killing of Jews as if he had been invited to a sporting event. In Visser't Hooft's own words, "group after group of Jewish men, women and children were forced to lie down in mass graves and were then machine-gunned to death. ... From that moment onward I had no longer any excuse for shutting my mind to information which could find no place in my view of the world and humanity." [emphasis added]

This helps me understand how a picture of grieving mothers in Beslan, or of bodies falling in Manhattan, can galvanize my vague awareness of Islamist terrorism into a firm sense of commitment to do something about it, and to join forces with those who want to protect Western liberal/secular culture. For all that I had read about Sarajevo in 1994, it was the image of the bodies of the two lovers on Vrbana Bridge that tilted me into certainty that my government ought to do something, and now, about this.

Kalb's explanation of America's willful blindness to the Holocaust embraces the government and the general population as well as the media. He cites the deep-seated anti-Semitism of the American people at that time, heightened from its usual level by the economic dislocation of the Depression and by xenophobia in general. In 1939, 53 percent of the American people told Roper pollsters that the Jews were "different" and for this reason "deserved ... social and economic restrictions."

And he considers the stunning scale of the slaughter in Eastern Europe, and its coming at the hands of the Germans, who were seen by many in America as civilized, cultured, and decent. "[P]eople simply could not absorb the monstrous dimension of the Nazi crimes."

Not until reporters, such as Edward R. Murrow, described the death camps at Buchenwald in 1945 did the true enormity of the Nazis crimes become apparent to the average listener of CBS News, to the average American.

On the government level, the Allies were determined to win the war and crush the Axis, and to shift or expand that focus to the mission of saving the Jews would dillute that purpose. Also, "Roosevelt did not want to alienate neutral nations, divert vital shipping, arouse false expectations, or antagonize Moslem states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia."

And journalism itself, in those years, was culturally aligned with the government's goal of defeating fascism first and foremost. The reporters were not that much different than the soldiers. They hated Hitler and Tojo. "The story was the prosecution of the war, the pursuit of an Allied victory, unconditional surrender. Like most other Americans, journalists covering the war had no other objective."

Yet as Kalb tells it, there is another, crucial, dimension to the buried "knowledge" of the Holocaust.

Arthur Hays Sulzberger was publisher [of the New York Times] during the war. According to family history, his ancestors came to America in 1695. Two were among the Jewish notables of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, when General-turned-President Washington visited their synagogue. Not surprisingly, Sulzberger considered himself to be a member of the establishment, an American, who just happened to be Jewish. During a trip to Palestine in 1937, he confronted the reality of zionism, and it profoundly discomfited him. "Never have I felt so much a foreigner as in this Holy Land," he later wrote.

On his return to New York, he found that his old fears of divided loyalty led him, to quote journalist Peter Grose, "to minimize, if not ultimately deny, his Jewish identity." Sulzberger helped found the anti-zionist American Council for Judaism, which Isaiah Berlin called "an assembly of mice who say that they will bell the zionist cat." Interestingly, The Times gave this splinter group as much coverage as it gave to all the other Jewish groups combined -- and much, much more than it gave to the Holocaust.

Sulzberger, as high brow among American Jews as Bernard Baruch or Walter Lippmann, was an ultra-assimilationist, a civilized man who simply wanted to avoid being categorized as a Jew. Baruch, denounced by the Jew-baiting Detroit radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, as "the uncrowned King of Wall Street," fled from too close an association with Jews. Lippmann, one of the great figures in American journalism in this century, frequently criticized Jews as "rich, vulgar and pretentious." He suggested that Harvard limit the enrollment of Jews. He dismissed Hitler's antisemitism as "unimportant," adding that the German leader was "the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people." From 1933, when Hitler came to power, until 1945, when Hitler was destroyed, Lippmann never wrote a word about the Holocaust, never once mentioned the death camps.

...In The Times, the murder of millions of Jews was treated as minor-league stuff, kept at a proper distance from the authentic news of the time. ... A perception then spread that if the Jewish-owned Times covered the Holocaust in this skimpy manner, then so could they, with impunity.

There's much more, worth reading.

I think of my grandfather, half-Jewish, a fact he hid so thoroughly that even my mother, his daughter, didn't realize it until she was in her 50s.

And, Gods help me, I couldn't get through it without thinking of my piously anti-Iraq War, virulently anti-Bush, and loudly anti-Israel co-worker, and his smug refrain of, "and that's not anti-Semitic, because Chomsky says the same thing, and he's Jewish."