March 2, 1944. On a relatively slow news day for war time, the front page of The New York Times contained stories about the Allied army holding off the Germans in Italy and the Soviet army taking back territories once captured by the Third Reich. On the next couple of pages, articles highlighted West Point's undefeated basketball season and falling prices in the stock market. On Page 4 – amid 13 other stories – was a five-paragraph item about Jews in a Polish town who predicted that their dwindling population would go from 250,000 to 50,000 in just a few weeks if someone didn't stop the murderous Nazi rampage.
" 'In our last moment before death, the remnants of Polish Jewry appeals for help from the whole world. May this, perhaps our last voice from the abyss, reach the ears of the whole world,' " read Laurel Leff, author of Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper, quoting from that 1944 report to a crowd of about 80 people at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel on Jan. 25. "The journalists at The New York Times did not respond to that anguished cry."
Leff – formerly a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald – asserts that if the Times had placed more stories about the Holocaust on its front pages preceding and during World War II, the U.S. government may have been forced to take more significant action to save Jewish lives.
She explained that the "paper of record" published 1,186 articles about the Holocaust – detailing discrimination against Jews, deportation, and even the operation of and death rates at concentration camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka – but only 26 made it to Page 1.
"To not put these stories on the front page is their way of saying, 'We don't think this is very important,' " said Leff, who appeared at the Elkins Park synagogue as part of a panel discussion featuring Jonathan S. Tobin, executive editor of the Jewish Exponent; editor Bruce Schimmel of the Philadelphia City Paper; and David Lee Preston, a former correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The event was sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Leff told the audience that there was significant reliable information available about the Holocaust as it happened.
"As soon as Jews are deported from Germany to Poland, there are stories about it in The New York Times," she explained. "They'll say exactly what town the Jews are being deported from. They'll say how many Jews are being deported. They'll say what time they're most likely leaving. They'll talk about where in Poland they're going."
Leff laid the blame on Arthur Hays Sulzberger – a Jew who published the Times during the war – who, she said, was hesitant to cover the Holocaust for fear that the Times would be perceived as a Jewish newspaper, or that it would look suspicious for a newspaper run by Jews to place emphasis on a Jewish issue.
"They decided to downplay the news of what was happening as to not appear as if they were playing it up because they were Jews," stated Leff. "They bent over backwards to look as if they were being neutral."
She said another reason the Shoah went underreported was because the U.S. government did not emphasize it, in an era when reporters trusted official sources.
"Roosevelt wasn't giving fireside chats about what was happening to the Jews," she said.
And she claimed that the lack of coverage became contagious: "The attitude was, 'If theTimes, which is owned by Jews, doesn't think it's an important story, why should we?' "