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N. Richard Greenfield Jewish Ledger Lecture on Jewish Journalism – Conversation with Laurel Leff

ct cover 12-2-11“The reality is that in the way the press covered liberation [of the concentration camps], there was almost no reference to Jews. The atrocities were part of the coverage… but the fact that it happened to Jews was almost not covered.”

By Cindy Mindell

In her book, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge University Press, 2005), West Hartford resident Laurel Leff takes an in-depth look at how the New York Times failed in its coverage of the fate of European Jews from 1939 to 1945. She recounts how news of Hitler’s “final solution” was hidden from readers and – because of the newspaper’s influence on other media –from America at large. The book was selected as the best media history book by the American Journalism Historians Association and the best history book by ForeWard Magazine.

Leff joined the faculty of Northeastern University in 1996, where she is an associate professor of journalism, the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies, and the associate director of Northeastern’s Jewish Studies Program in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Prior to her academic career, Leff served as a journalist for 18 years, reporting for The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald. She also served as an editor for American Lawyer Media, Inc. and The Hartford Courant. A graduate of Princeton University, she earned her master’s degree in communication from the University of Miami and a master’s degree in the study of law from Yale University.

Leff will be keynote speaker at the first annual N. Richard Greenfield Jewish Ledger Lecture, established to honor the memory of the Ledger’s late publisher “Ricky” Greenfield.

She recently spoke with the Ledger about her research and her upcoming talk.


Laurel Leff

Laurel Leff

Q: Briefly, what did the Times do and not do in its Holocaust coverage?

A: The Times did have many stories about the Holocaust as it was happening. During World War II, primarily from September 1939 to May 1945, I counted 1,186 stories in the paper about what was happening to European Jews. That’s approximately one story every other day, and the stories were very detailed and timely. If you had read them, you would have had a very good idea throughout the war about what was happening.

But the Times did not highlight or otherwise identify these stories as especially important. They did not appear on the front page and when they appeared inside the paper, they looked different than they do today: there were more stories and fewer photos or other things to draw your attention. So on one hand, there was a lot of information in the paper and, on the other hand, there was almost no attempt to draw attention to it. These stories never made it into the Times’ weekly list of notable news and were mentioned only very rarely in editorials. Aside from placing stories on page one, every other way to tell readers that this was something important, the Times failed to do.

Even before the war, there was an attitude on the part of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, that the Times not be seen as a Jewish newspaper. And there is a consistency to the [Holocaust] coverage that makes it unquestionable that there was a decision made to place it inside.


Q: Did the Times ever respond to your book?

A: In 1996 – before my book came out – the Times mounted “100 Years of the New York Times,” an exhibit at the New York Public Library marking the 100th anniversary of Adolph Ochs’s acquiring the newspaper. They blew up one story about the Holocaust that had run on page seven during World War II, and that was their public acknowledgment in response to accusations that they had not reported sufficiently on the Holocaust.

At the time of the exhibit, I called up the Times to ask them to explain and discuss the paper’s Holocaust coverage and they told me that they had looked in their archives and had found nothing explaining editorial policy from that period. I asked to speak with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., son of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who had been editor during the Holocaust. But I was told that no one in the family wanted to talk with me about this topic.

The Times did make its archives available to me. The idea that you could find nothing in the archives [explaining editorial policy from that period] was not true. Arthur Hays Sulzberger said in many letters that the paper did not want to be singling out the Jews for special treatment and that the way to approach [the Holocaust] is to link the suffering of the Jews with the suffering of other people. So there was a deliberate decision on the part of management not to single out the suffering of Jews, at least not on the front page or in editorials. On the inside stories, it is clear that it is the Jews who are being singled out for extermination, but not on the cover, and I think that was a calculated decision on the part of the Times.

When the book came out, I sent a copy to the then- [and current] publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. He wrote me back, saying, “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I wish I could thank you for writing it but that would be a bridge too far.”

In 2001, the Times marked the 150th anniversary of its founding with a special section in the paper. One of the articles was “Turning Away From the Holocaust,” written by former Times executive editor Max Frankel, a German-Jewish refugee who came to the U.S. as a teen in 1940. My book had not come out yet but I had published a couple of articles on the topic and Frankel relied on those for his piece. It didn’t carry the official imprimatur of the Times but that was an unofficial acknowledgment of its Holocaust coverage.


Q: Today, the Times is often accused of biased coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you agree?

A: I think it is important to understand the history of Jewish affiliation and anti-Zionism in the Ochs-Sulzberger family. Like all histories, it informs the current perspective and behavior.

During World War II, Jews were often accused of engaging in “special pleading” on behalf of the Jews of Europe. The publisher didn’t want to be known that way or the Times to be known as a Jewish newspaper. Instead, he tried to maintain neutrality, describing events but not playing them up, and they probably played them down more than they should have.

Adolph Ochs and his wife, Effie [daughter of Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise], were very involved in the Jewish community, but from a very particular perspective. Reform Judaism before World War II was not what we think of as modern Reform Judaism; it’s now called classical Reform Judaism. Part of the theology was to be assimilationists; the idea was that Jews are not a people but just a religion. That meant that the family was very anti-Zionist and opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Most Reform Jews were opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. The Times lined up with this idea. Then-editor Arthur Sulzberger, who jumped into these fights, made anti-Zionist speeches and wrote in support of this view.

The current publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., is in a very different position than his grandfather. To start with, his mother was Episcopalian and he was raised Episcopalian, though he does acknowledge his family’s Jewish ties. But unlike his grandfather, he is not a Jew trying to fit into an anti-Semitic American society.

Every editor has certain inclinations to put something on page one vs. page 10 and will not make a perfect judgment every day. I think that, without taking a real systematic look at the Times and its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over a time period – and you can always find examples of under- or over-reporting – you won’t know whether the paper is biased.

My work has taught me that you have to get into the weeds and look at the whole picture if you want to make a judgment.

While I read the Times every day, I haven’t actually studied it systematically, so I am unwilling to make a judgment in this regard.


Q: Your talk will focus on newspaper coverage of the year 1945. What is so significant about that year, in terms of the American media?

A: 1945 is often presented as the year Americans learned about the Holocaust, but it was not. Several key events during that year shaped our subsequent understanding of the Holocaust, and press coverage is a very important part of that process. I’ve looked at three events in newspaper coverage: the liberation of the concentration camps, displaced person camps, and the Nuremberg Trials.

The reality is that in the way the press covered liberation, there was almost no reference to Jews. The atrocities were part of the coverage – though in the mainstream papers, it wasn’t as ghastly as in the unedited newsreels – but the fact that it happened to Jews was almost not covered.

Most of the non-Jewish inmates of the concentration camps go back to where they’re from, but the Jews don’t, for the most part. Those who flee to the Soviet Union come back to Germany and to the displaced person camps. The survivor story is a very important part of our understanding of the Holocaust, but what amazes me about the coverage of the DP camps is that the reporter almost never talks to a Jewish survivor. That is somewhat a result of journalistic convention and somewhat due to language differences, though I can’t imagine that translators were not available from Yiddish or German.

During the Nuremberg Trials in November 1945, both the trials and the media coverage downplay the Jewish aspects of what happened.

When you look at how we grappled with the Holocaust in the ‘50s, the way the press treated those three issues in 1945 is very important in setting the stage for how the Holocaust was downplayed by the American press until the Eichmann trial in 1961.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

The N. Richard Greenfield Jewish Ledger Lecture on Jewish Journalism, with guest speaker Prof. Laurel Leff, author of Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, will be on Monday October 6 at 7 p.m., Wilde Auditorium, University of Hartford.

Followed by a reception and the opening of the exhibit “1945: Liberation,” 8 p.m., Museum of Jewish Civilization, Mortensen Library, University of Hartford.

The lecture, reception and exhibit opening are free and open to the public.

The University of Hartford is located at 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Info: (860) 768-5018 or mgcjs@hartford.edu.



In the Museum of Jewish Civilization 1945: Liberation

By Prof. Avinoam Patt

Certain years in Jewish history are more significant than others. The years 586 BCE, 70 CE, 1492 CE, and 1948 CE all hold a central place in the Jewish historical imagination. 1945 is one of those years – it is a year of triumph and tragedy, a year to be commemorated, celebrated, and memorialized, a moment in both American and Jewish history that must be marked.

For the Jewish people, the moment of liberation from the camps of Europe in 1945 was the modern version of the biblical exodus from Egypt. For most Americans, the newsreels screened after liberation marked their first awareness of the full-scale horrors of the Holocaust and the true realization of just what America had been fighting for and against.

For Jews in Europe, 1945 meant they were liberated, but not yet free. In 1945, the story of European Jewry’s destruction had not yet been told and it would take an entire generation to unfold. It was a story that had been “buried” by the mainstream press; only recently have we come to appreciate the sacrifices of the “Greatest Generation” to protect and defend the values of Western civilization.

On Monday, Oct. 6, at 7 p.m., the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and the Connecticut Jewish Ledger will host the inaugural N. Richard Greenfield Jewish Ledger Lecture on Jewish Journalism in the University of Hartford’s Wilde Auditorium, featuring author and professor Dr. Laurel Leff. On the same evening, the Museum of Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford will open a fascinating new exhibition,.1945: Liberation, that highlights the centrality of the year 1945 in Jewish history, through photography and artifacts from the period of liberation.

As Laurel Leff argues in her groundbreaking work Buried by the Times, America’s most important newspaper buried the story of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, we must commemorate what was lost and not reported – it is our duty to tell and retell the untold stories of our history.

It is in that spirit that we celebrate the accomplishments of N. Richard Greenfield z”l – known to many simply as “Ricky” – who, as publisher of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger never allowed a single important Jewish issue or cause to be buried in the pages of his newspaper. It is our hope to use this annual lecture to bring to the community journalists, writers, artists and researchers who have worked in the same spirit of “Ricky” Greenfield, to inspire future Jewish journalists to tell the stories that must be told.

The exhibit 1945: Liberation, located in the main William Singer Gallery of the Museum of Jewish Civilization in the University of Hartford’s Mortensen Library, tells a story that also went unreported for too long: the role of 500,000 “GI Jews” – men and women who were witnesses to history — in the fight against fascism and the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.

In the fall of 1944, Samuel Cotzin was a 28-year-old Jewish GI from Worcester, Mass. sent to serve in the European Theater. Assigned to the 188st Engineering Battalion, Cotzin went to battle liberating France, Belgium, and Germany from Nazi oppression, armed with a gun and his camera. Like many GIs, he never spoke about his wartime experiences. But, after his death, his family began to organize his photographs of the war and discovered an untold story of heroism and heartbreak. When Cotzin’s battalion entered Germany in the spring of 1945, the final Allied push into Germany signaled the end of the war for many of the Jews who had managed to survive the long years in Nazi concentration camps and ghettos. Yet, it did not necessarily signal the end of their suffering.

Cotzin captured the tragic scenes at the Buchenwald concentration camp, one of the first camps to be liberated by American forces of the 4th Armored Division on April 11, 1945. Although there had been 50,000 prisoners in the camp at the beginning of April, many died in the first days and weeks following liberation. Most of the Jewish prisoners were found in the Little Camp, where conditions were at their worst.

The American soldiers who arrived in the camp were horrified by what they saw: stacks of dead bodies and survivors who were just skin and bones.Twenty to 25 prisoners per day died in each cellblock in the days following liberation, as the years of starvation and disease took their toll. Many of these scenes were captured by Cotzin on his camera.

The concentration camp of Dachau was liberated almost three weeks later on April 29, 1945, by American soldiers of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions. Of the 30,000 prisoners liberated at Dachau, some 2,500 died in the following month and a half. The GIs – both Jewish and non-Jewish — who liberated concentration camps like Buchenwald and Dachau in Germany encountered a situation for which they were completely unprepared. Testimonies from the time use words like “indescribable” and “beyond belief” to convey the unprecedented brutality that no one had ever seen before.

For Jewish GIs, the confrontation with the camps was in many ways more complicated than it was for non-Jewish soldiers. Jewish GIs possessed a sense of kinship with the Jewish survivors whom they managed to save. Jewish soldiers usually knew enough Yiddish to even say “Ich bin a Yid” (I am a Jew), and this expression of solidarity and pride was often enough to bring a smile to the faces of survivors.

Among the soldiers featured in Cotzin’s photographs is the American Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, the first chaplain to enter Buchenwald after its liberation on April 11, 1945. Schachter, together with other Jewish chaplains and GIs, was instrumental in helping survivors come back to life by helping to bury the dead — enabling survivors to mourn those who perished — organizing prayer services, and helping surviving families locate one another.

1945: Liberation will also include photography and artifacts from the collection of Gregg and Michelle Philipson of Austin, Tex., avid collectors of the artwork of Arthur Szyk, all aspects of American Jewish history, and Jewish military history in particular. A postcard dedicated to the Liberation of Dachau, a 42nd Infantry Shana Tova Card, as well as Szyk artwork depicting Jewish soldiers and photographs from Liberation, are just some of the items to be included in the exhibition, courtesy of the Philipson Collection and Archive. Copies of Jewish Ledger covers and coverage of the war will also be featured in the exhibit. Professor Jerome Hall of San Diego University has also provided an illustrated history of the 42nd Infantry Division that liberated the Dachau camp, belonging to his father, Marvin Omar Hall, one of the liberators of Dachau.

In addition to the “1945” exhibition in the main William Singer Gallery, a new exhibition in the back room of the Museum of Jewish Civilization will also be open: The Flames of Memory: Yizkor Books, Art and the Holocaust. Yizkor books are memorial books created by survivors to remember Eastern European Jewish communities, and were typically produced by landsmanshaftn (hometown immigrant aid societies) after the Holocaust. These rare books are both valuable to the descendants of these destroyed communities and serve as a unique resource for historians and genealogists interested in Jewish life and culture before, during, and after the Holocaust. Formerly on display at the Hatikvah Holocaust Resource Center in Longmeadow, Mass., the Yizkor Books are now housed at the Museum of Jewish Civilization, thanks to a generous gift from the Zachs Family Holocaust Museum Fund.

The lecture, exhibition and reception are co-sponsored by the Connecticut Jewish Ledger and the families of Alan Cotzin and Norma Passo.

Avinoam Patt is Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, University of Hartford.


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