This Day in Jewish History

1891: The NY Times Publisher Who Would Overlook the Holocaust Is Born

Balled up in appearances, Arthur Sulzberger wished he wasn't Jewish so he could openly try to save his brethren in the Holocaust, but he was, and he didn't.

The Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper in 1942. Reporters and rewrite men wrote stories and waited to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside.
Marjory Collins, Wikimedia Commons

September 12, 1891, is the birthdate of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the longtime publisher of The New York Times, who oversaw the growth and modernization of the paper, and decided that The Times would take positions on its editorial page on the subjects it reported on its news pagers. It is therefore ironic and tragic – or outrageous, in the opinion of some – that The Times under Sulzberger deliberately downplayed what it knew about the Holocaust as it was happening, because he felt it would be unseemly for a Jew to be lobbying on behalf of his own brethren.

Arthur Hays Sulzberger was born in New York into a wealthy and prominent Jewish family. His father, Cyrus Sulzberger, of German-Jewish descent, was the Philadelphia-born owner of a textile company. His mother, Rachel Peixotto Hays, was descended from two of New York’s oldest and most distinguished Sephardi lines, the Seixas and Peixotto families.

Arthur graduated from the progressive Horace Mann School, in 1909, and from Columbia College, where he studied engineering, in 1913. He worked at his father’s firm, Erlanger, Blumgart & Co., for several years, before enrolling in a U.S. Army officers training course. He also befriended Julius Ochs Adler, nephew of New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, who introduced him to his cousin, Iphigene Bertha Ochs, Adolph’s only child.

More than a year passed between the time Arthur first proposed marriage to Iphigene, and her acceptance of the offer. Her father then conditioned his approval of the engagement on Arthur’s coming to work at The Times, which he did in 1918.

It took Arthur some time to find his place at the paper, but once he did, he and his old friend Julius became engaged in a tacit competition to succeed Adolph Ochs.

Not much faith in Lindbergh

Looking to prove himself, Arthur became the resident expert in newsprint. It was he who persuaded his father-in-law that the Times should invest in its own paper-production plant. After taking a 200-mile canoe trip into northern Ontario with James Kimberly, of the paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark, to scout out a site, the two companies established the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Co., in 1926.

Arthur finally proved himself when the paper published Charles Lindbergh’s exclusive account of his solo flight, the first, across the Atlantic, in 1927. The idea of commissioning Lindbergh for the story had been Sulzberger’s, though he didn’t actually expect Lindbergh to finish the trip.

Adolph S. Ochs
Wikimedia Commons

The Times sold a lot of extra papers, and Adolphs Ochs began openly grooming his son-in-law to succeed him.

Ochs died in 1935. During the next 26 years, under Arthur Sulzberger, The Times’ gross income increased seven-fold, its advertising lineage more than tripled, and the size of its staff doubled, to 5,000.

The Holocaust, however, would showcase the unease Sulzberger felt as a Jew in a position of leadership.

He was a firm supporter of U.S. entry into World War II, but thought it should be for any reason other than to save Jews’ lives. After a September 1941 meeting with him, Valentine Williams, a British agent stationed in New York, reported back to London how the publisher “told me that for the first time in his life he regretted being a Jew because, with the tide of anti-Semitism rising, he was unable to champion the anti-Hitler policy of the administration as vigorously and as universally as he would like as his sponsorship would be attributed to Jewish influence by isolationists and thus lose something of its force."

The consequences of this self-censorship by Sulzberger and his colleagues led to The Times underplaying the prominence it gave to stories about Nazi genocide, when it reported them at all. It’s a phenomenon that was covered by Laurel Leff in her 2006 book, “Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.”

Sulzberger stepped down as publisher in 1961, and was succeeded by his son-in-law Orvil Dryfoos. Two years later, after Dryfoos’ death at age 50, Sulzberger’s only son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known as “Punch,” took over, holding the position until 1992.

Arthur Hays Sulzberger remained chairman of the board of the company until his death, on December 11, 1968.