Our weekly issue of Life Magazine, dated May 7, 1945, arrived on my ninth birthday. Its cover photo showed three solemn men, one with his wounded wrist in a sling, with the caption “The German People” who, Life explained, “know the bitterness of defeat.” I already knew about World War II. Nearly four years earlier my father, engaged in our annual December ritual of setting up my Lionel electric trains, was repeatedly interrupted by radio broadcasts. I could not imagine why anything was more important than my trains. It was December 7, 1941.
Even in Forest Hills (Queens), life changed. Occasional night-time blackouts were scary. My public school had a victory garden to provide food, we kindergarten pupils were told, for starving European victims of the Nazi conquest. My father, too old for the draft, became a proud volunteer fireman. He also sold war bonds to his fellow costume jewelry friends, enabling me to win the school prize as the best salesboy. My picture appeared in the local newspaper.
At a gathering in Philadelphia to visit my beloved grandmother and her sisters, all refugees from Odessa decades earlier, news had arrived that my mother’s brother, my favorite uncle, would be drafted. The women began to scream and sob as if he had been captured by the Czar’s army. A year later I met my cousin Billy, in full dress in his marine uniform, at his parents’ home in New Jersey. Within a year he was killed in the battle of Tarawa.
On May 7, 1945 I turned the pages of Life past pictures of celebrating American soldiers to a full-page photo of a boy walking along a path through tall trees, passing scores of dead bodies, some clothed, others not. The next five pages, with photos of emaciated survivors in the Nazi death camp of Gardelegn, were terrifying. There were men with legs as thin as sticks and faces twisted in horror. The head and arm of a dead prisoner was squeezed under the wooden door where he had tried to escape. Worst of all was a full-page photo from the Nordhausen camp, where the emaciated dead bodies of 3,000 slave laborers, lying in rows, were viewed by American soldiers.
But far and away the most enduring war photo for me was of a young boy my age emerging with other children and their parents from an underground bunker in the Warsaw Ghetto. The boy, carrying a thin bag over his shoulder, wore knee-high socks, shorts, a jacket and a cap. With Nazi soldiers guarding the procession, his arms were raised in surrender. His face showed the terror he surely felt. “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw,” reported Nazi commander Jurgen Stroop proudly, “is no more.” The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where the boy might have been taken to die along with a million other Jews, will be observed in Jerusalem, and at the death camp, on January 27th.
Perhaps The New York Times, which buried the Holocaust in its inside pages when it even deigned to mention that unprecedented horror, will finally acknowledge its evasion of what happened at Auschwitz. Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a proud American Reform Jew, had fiercely opposed singling out Jews as victims of Nazi annihilation. Jews who were deported to death camps were identified in his newspaper as “persons,” not Jews. Its first published account of the Nazi extermination plan, duly identified as “probably the greatest mass slaughter in history,” appeared on an inside page at the bottom of a column of unrelated stories.
It got worse. In the summer of 1942 the Times cited a report by Szmul Zygielbojm of the Polish National Council documenting the slaughter of 700,000 Jews: “children in orphanages, old persons in almshouses, the sick in hospitals and women were slain in the streets.” For months, Germans had been “methodically proceeding with their campaign to exterminate all Jews.” But the Times front page that day featured articles about tennis shoes and canned fruit. Auschwitz horrors never received front-page attention.
The Times described the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in brief inside page stories. Its first account, nearly three weeks after the revolt began, was four paragraphs long. Its solitary editorial about the uprising referred to 400,000 “persons” who were deported to Treblinka. There was no indication that those “persons” were Jews. As Sulzberger explained to a friend, “We chose to think of Jews as human beings instead of any particular religious group.” Only once in four years was the fate of Jews mentioned on the front page or the subject of a lead editorial. Their horrific plight never qualified for the daily Times ranking of important events.
The Times can never erase its inexcusable dereliction of journalistic responsibility. How will it cover the upcoming memorial observances in Auschwitz and Jerusalem marking 75 years since its liberation? Will it atone for evading the murder of six million Jews who were deemed too inconsequential for notice in its pages?
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic as a Best Book of 2019 by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer.