Holocaust Studies / What Did the Messenger Know?

Yosef Gorny's study of the way Jewish newspapers covered the Holocaust dispels the myth that the media knew more than they let on.

Kriya B'ein Onim (A Cry in the Wilderness: The Jewish Press in the Land of Israel, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union in Light of the Holocaust, 1939 1945) , by Yosef Gorny, Kibbutz Hameuchad and Tel Aviv University Press (Hebrew), 320 pages, NIS 88

Jewish newspaper, 1941
Yad Vashem

In January 1943, 56 children from Romania and Hungary arrived in the Land of Israel. Representatives of the pre state Yishuv in Istanbul involved in secret rescue operations vehemently opposed having their arrival revealed in the newspapers, which at the time were more or less the only means of dispensing the news.

In early March, 72 more children arrived, traveling by train via Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, reaching Eretz Israel through the Rosh Hanikra border crossing. The train made a stop in Afula, where pretty much everyone in town showed up to greet them with flowers and tears. They were, after all, the first children known to the public to reach the country since the Jewish Agency had declared in November 1942 that the Germans were engaged in the deliberate and systematic annihilation of all the Jews of Europe and that the children were the first in line. This time the press didn't hold back. The papers joyfully reported the children's arrival, and expressed the hope that many more such groups would follow.

Even if Adolf Eichmann had other ways of ascertaining that some of his prey had evaded him, the published report made his task much easier. Several residents of Templer communities in the Land of Israel who knew Hebrew and German and were operating from Istanbul regularly translated the newspapers of the Yishuv, and within a day or two, news of the escaped children landed on Eichmann's desk. He didn't waste any time. The very next day orders were handed down from Berlin preventing any additional groups of Jews from leaving the areas under Nazi control.

Did the Jewish press in Israel and abroad publish every article on the Holocaust that crossed the editors' desks, immediately and in a prominent location in the paper, as befitted the gravity of the situation? And if not, why not? Was it in fact of critical importance to do so, or would publication of such information have been counterproductive? Did the Yishuv leadership and the leaders of other Jewish communities attempt to influence the way editors shaped their coverage of the Holocaust and how extensively they did so, taking into account political and national considerations as well as concern over not sowing panic?

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Such questions are still relevant today. Indeed, they have become even more pointed over the years, since the passage of time bestows on the Holocaust a greater and more intense significance, and since the media has become an increasingly important part of public life. These are among the issues at the heart of historian Yosef Gorny's book "A Cry in the Wilderness," whose Hebrew title suggests a double meaning. It translates literally as "An Impotent Cry," suggesting that those reading the newspapers of the day - whether individuals with families trapped in Europe or North Africa, or officials tasked with finding solutions - felt impotent in their attempts to convince the Allies, who were up to their necks in fighting a world war that ultimately cost the lives of at least 55 million people around the world, to grant the Jews the same status as other occupied nations. This impotence also extended to their inability to stop the Germans from carrying out their uncompromising decision to murder every last Jew; to those trying to get assistance from the European populations who prostrated themselves before the Germans or collaborated with them; and to their attempts to acquire military capability or political resources.

In Hebrew, the book's title also alludes to a second meaning, a homophone referring to a cry that no one answers ("ein onim" ): The newspaper readers of the time also realized that no one would answer their cry. "This is an existential impotence, in the national sense," Gorny says.

They didn't believe what they read

Many researchers have studied the Jewish press during the Holocaust, but they have only looked at individual countries. Gorny has gone a step beyond by examining almost all the daily Jewish newspaper reports published in Mandatory Palestine, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. He has also compared his findings from the two time periods of the war: from the beginning of World War II, in 1939, to the end of 1942 - when it became clear that systematic annihilation was underway in Europe, creating a revolution in how the war was viewed and the actions attempted - and from that point until the war's end in 1945.

Gorny also presents key intellectuals' predictions and assessments about the future of the Jewish people - predictions that, sorry to say, had no connection to reality, even given that some of the statements were made before the Final Solution was widely known about. The book closes with a quantitative analysis (edited by Hila Braun Rinot ) of the editorials and articles and their placement in Hebrew newspapers in Mandatory Palestine. This kind of analysis has not been carried out elsewhere, and it dispels many of the myths that have until now circulated unchecked.

Reading and comparing the various newspapers show that the Jewish press, both within and outside the Land of Israel, covered the Holocaust extensively, with the newspapers here writing about it more. A comparison between Hebrew newspapers Davar, Haaretz and Hamashkif shows that Davar, the Labor movement daily, which has been criticized from all sides (especially by the first to research the issue, S.B. Beit Zvi, in his book "Post Ugandan Zionism on Trial" ), actually published a lot more about the Holocaust than either of the other two papers. At the time, Hamashkif, the Revisionist paper, was incessantly attacking Davar, for explicitly political reasons, to the point that it became an uncontested axiom that Davar was ignoring the Holocaust.

The comparison between the newspapers also shows that they published pretty much whatever information they received about what was happening to the Jews in Europe, including some hair raising stories that were inconceivable at the time in terms of the number of victims and especially the cruelty of the killing methods. Indeed, readers and journalists alike argued during the first half of the war that the many articles describing atrocities were an exaggeration, akin to "spilling blood into the lines of the newspapers," and called on editors to exhibit greater responsibility in the kinds of pieces they published and stop demoralizing the public and creating panic.

Britain's Jewish Chronicle reported a similar trend, saying that Jews had asked rabbis not to discuss such articles in their sermons because they were not credible.

The accusation that has prevailed since World War II, that Jewish newspapers knew more about the atrocities than they actually published - though why would they do that? - is dispelled through meticulous reading of these papers, which makes it clear that the main problem, a deep seated one, was the difficulty of grasping a new reality that threatened not just the individual or even the entire Jewish people, but also all human values, as though the world had been turned upside down. In her autobiography "My Life" (1975 ), Golda Meir wrote that it would be to "our credit as decent people that we didn't believe the reports."

First, beat the Nazis

All of the Jewish papers analyzed in the book - aside from those based in the Soviet Union (for obvious reasons ) - also paid close attention and covered objectively the progress of the war; news stories detailing its progress were the lead stories throughout World War II. There were some months when many articles about how the Jews were faring during the war appeared on the front pages, even if they didn't necessarily make the lead headline. For every year of the war, Davar, for instance, had an average of 252 lead headlines about the war, and an average of 388 front page pieces about the Jews.

Thus, just because the Jews of Europe weren't always the subject of the lead stories doesn't mean they weren't covered at all - but all the same, since the end of the war, readers and editors have been asking themselves whether newspapers neglected the Jewish tragedy. Their answer and Gorny's is that the Jewish newspapers unwillingly reconciled themselves to "the bitter thought" that "nothing can be done" until the enemy was vanquished. In so doing, writes Gorny, the press reluctantly agreed with the Allies, who refused to discuss plans to save the Jews arguing that defeating the Nazis was itself the salvation required.

In a review of Gorny's book in the academic journal Kesher, Mordechai Naor wrote that the most important issue that arises from the comparison of the Jewish newspapers' coverage is that during World War II, the Jewish press essentially filled the role of the leadership, since the political leaders had no means of taking action. The Jewish press in general, and especially the independent newspapers like Haaretz, the Jewish Chronicle and the Yiddish Forward in New York, and certainly the opposition papers in Eretz Israel, were able to permit themselves to issue protests, make demands and harshly criticize the Jewish and Zionist leadership.

That's what happened in the United States, where there was an atmosphere of isolationism before the country entered the war. Anti Semitism could have been a deterrent to public discussion of the Holocaust since the demand that America go to war made the Jews come off as self serving, and the American Jewish community didn't have the power then that it has today.

In Britain, the Jewish press was able to protest the minimal response in the general media to atrocities committed against Jews, even as the country's newspapers flew off the handle over the Nazi torching of the Czech village of Lidice. In Eretz Israel, the papers attacked the British for keeping out asylum seekers, and raised demands for various rescue plans that the leadership knew full well were unrealistic. "From this perspective," writes Gorny, the press "voiced the sentiments of the masses more than the political leadership did."

Distress, bereavement, anger

The Jewish press also directed its criticism inward, attacking Jewish involvement in the black market in Britain and the United States and the flow of daily life in Eretz Israel, which the writers thought demonstrated the apathy of those living here. There is no indication that the political leadership, here or elsewhere, dictated to editors what to publish or what to suppress regarding the Holocaust. On the contrary, confusion, anxiety and lack of confidence were the hallmark of all the Jewish papers, as many editors attested to when they gathered after the war to discuss the point (as Haviv Canaan described in his 1969 book, "The Press War" ), and the leadership of the Yishuv often took its lead based upon information taken from the press.

It may be that the newspapers' protests - whether directed toward political world leaders or Jewish readers and leaders - had no effect, and for all that they published on what was happening to the Jews, there is no doubt that any coverage would have failed to reflect the full extent of the tragedy. Nonetheless, the Jewish press did, as Gorny concludes, fill a task of the utmost importance in that it created emotional public involvement, thus, he writes, "contributing ceaselessly to the unity of the Jewish people, in its distress, bereavement and anger - in the Land of Israel, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union."

And one more thing: This significant and innovative book, the work of one of the most important researchers in the country, could have benefited from far more meticulous editing than it received, and that's a shame.

Dina Porat, a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, is editor of the book "When Disaster Comes From Afar: Leading Personalities in the Land of Israel Confront Nazism and the Holocaust, 1933 1948" (Yad Ben Zvi, 2009 ).