How America first learned of the Holocaust

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Click photo to download. Caption: Shmuel Zygelbojm, a Jewish member of the London-based Polish Government in Exile, played a major role in publicizing the Bund Report. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Seventy years ago this month America learned, for the first time, about the systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews—but Allied officials and some leading newspapers downplayed the news.

In late 1941 and early 1942, Western diplomats and journalists received scattered information about Nazi massacres of many thousands of Jews in German-occupied Poland and Russia. But the news was difficult to confirm and sounded to many like the usual travails of war.

The turning point came in late May 1942, when a courier from the Jewish Socialist Bund of Poland reached England with a shocking report. It began: “From the day the Russo-German war broke out, the Germans embarked on the physical extermination of the Jewish population on Polish soil.”

The Bund Report stressed that the killings were not isolated outbursts, but part of a systematic plan to “annihilate all the Jews in Europe,” town by town, country by country. The report described how in villages throughout Poland and Western Russia, German troops marched the Jewish residents to a nearby forest or ravine and machine-gunned them into giant pits. The Bund also detailed the killing of Jews in the Chelmno camp in mobile death vans—trucks whose exhaust fumes were pumped back into the passenger cabin.

Some 700,000 Jews had already been murdered, the Bund Report calculated. At a follow-up press conference in June, World Jewish Congress officials in London reported that the death toll had passed one million. (The real number was already close to 2 million.)

BBC Radio devoted several broadcasts to the story, and the London Times and other British newspapers published it prominently. The response of the American press, however, was much weaker. The Chicago Tribune, for example, relegated the news to 11 lines on page 6, and reported vaguely that the Jews had perished as a result of “ill treatment” by the Germans. The Los Angeles Times gave it two paragraphs on page 3. 

The coverage in the New York Times was particularly important because many other newspapers looked to the Times—as they still do—to decide if a particular story deserves attention. On June 27, the Times buried the Bund story at the end of a column of short news items from Europe. Five days later, the Times reported on the World Jewish Congress’s press conference—but the Times diluted the news by asserting that the death toll “probably includes many who died of maltreatment in concentration camps, starvation in ghettos or forced labor” rather than mass murder.

Then, on July 4, the Times tried to pull the rug out from under the Bund Report. An unsigned news analysis, published on page 4, claimed the Jewish death toll could be anywhere “from 100,000 to 1,500,000.” The Germans “treat the Jews according to whether they are productive or nonproductive,” the Times asserted. The high mortality rate among “nonproductive” Jews was due to “starvation and illtreatment” rather than mass executions. Eyewitness accounts of mass graves with 40,000 bodies at Zhitomir “appear to have been based on hearsay.”

Meanwhile, the Allies were trying to bury the story. A few weeks after the Bund Report arrived, officials of the U.S. Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information began meeting in Washington under the auspices of their new Committee on War Information Policy. They decided to withhold news about Nazi massacres of Jews, lest it lead to “hatred of all members of the races guilty of such actions” or provoke retaliation against American POWs. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations, refrained from calling on the Allied governments to take any steps to rescue European Jews. Credit: courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

In response to the Bund Report, the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith and the Jewish Labor Committee organized a rally at Madison Square Garden in July 1942 that drew a capacity crowd of 20,000. But AJC president Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the other speakers refrained from calling on the Allied governments to take any steps to rescue European Jews. The protest was limited to expressions of sorrow over the killing, and hope for a speedy Allied victory over the Nazis.

“It is somewhat difficult to put all the blame for complacency on British and American statesmen...when Jewish leaders made no visible attempt to put pressure on their governments for any active policy of rescue,” Prof. Yehuda Bauer, of Hebrew University and Yad Vashem, has written. “The Jewish leadership could hardly plead lack of knowledge.”

Bauer blames the restrained Jewish response on doubts about the news, “loyalty to President Roosevelt,” and “fear of arousing anti-Semitism if the United States were requested to act specifically in the interest of Jews in Europe.”

Prof. David S. Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews, contends that Wise and other Jewish leaders “were still in shock—the news from Europe was so horrific, and so unprecedented, that it took time to understand and absorb it.” It would take several more months of such reports, and a grudging confirmation by the Roosevelt administration at the end of 1942, before Jewish leaders began proposing concrete plans for rescue—but even then, the struggle to bring about Allied action would prove formidable indeed.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”

Posted on June 11, 2012 and filed under Features, U.S., World.