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Wednesday August 5, 1999

The Holocaust in American Life
The Nazi regime killed about six million European Jews
while the American people were distracted.

By Peter Novick

FRESNO STATE -- What was the response by President Franklin Roosevelt and the American people to the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews while the killing was going on?
     It is now apparent that Mr. Roosevelt's wartime response was so initially ineffective that it made the United States a passive accomplice in the crime.
     However, by the 1970s and 1980s the Holocaust had become a shocking, massive, and distinctive thing clearly marked off, qualitatively and quantitatively, from other Nazi atrocities and from previous Jewish persecutions, singular in its scope, its symbolism, and its historical significance.
     This way of looking at it is nowadays regarded as both proper and natural, the "normal human response."
     This was not the response of most Americans, even of American Jews, while the Holocaust was being carried out. Not only did the Holocaust have nowhere near the centrality in consciousness that it had from the 1970s on, but for the overwhelming majority of Americans — and, once again, this included a great many Jews as well — it barely existed as a singular event in its own right.
     The murderous actions of the Nazi regime, which killed between five and six million European Jews, were all too real.
     But "the Holocaust," as we speak of it today, was largely a retrospective construction, something that would not have been recognizable to most people at the time.
     To speak of "the Holocaust" as a distinct entity, which Americans failed to respond to, is to introduce an anachronism that stands in the way of understanding contemporary responses.
     The sheer number of victims of the Holocaust continues to dumbfound. There were about six million. But the Holocaust took place in the midst of a global war that eventually killed between fifty and sixty million people.
     There are those for whom any such contextualization is a trivializing of the Holocaust, a tacit denial of the special circumstances surrounding the destruction of European Jewry. Certainly such focus can be used for these purposes, as when the French rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen dismisses the Holocaust as a mere "detail" of the history of the Second World War.
     But it was the overall course of the war that dominated the minds of Americans in the early forties. Unless we keep that in mind, we will never understand how the Holocaust came to be swallowed up in the larger carnage surrounding it.
     By itself, the fact that during the war, and for some time thereafter, there was no agreed-upon word for the murder of Europe's Jews is not all that significant.
     What is perhaps of some importance is that insofar as the word holocaust was employed during the war, as it occasionally was, it was almost always applied to the totality of the destruction wrought by the Axis powers, not to the special fate of the Jews.
     This usage is emblematic of wartime perceptions of what we now single out as the Holocaust.
      There are many different dimensions to the wartime marginality of the Holocaust in the American mind: what one knew, and what one believed; how to frame what one knew or believed; devising an appropriate response. In principle these questions are separable; in practice they were inextricably entwined.
     Although no one could imagine its end result, all Americans were well aware of Nazi anti-Semitism from the regime's beginning in 1933, if not earlier.
     Prewar Nazi actions against Jews, from early discriminatory measures to the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 and culminating in Kristallnacht in 1938, were widely reported in the American press and repeatedly denounced at all levels of American society.
     No one doubted that Jews were high on the list of actual and potential victims of Nazism, but it was a long list, and Jews, by some measures, were not at the top. Despite Nazi attempts to keep secret what went on in concentration camps in the thirties, their horrors were known in the West, and were the main symbol of Nazi brutality. But until late 1938 there were few Jews, as Jews, among those imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in the camps.
     The victims were overwhelmingly Communists, socialists, trade unionists, and other political opponents of the Hitler regime. And it was to be another four years before the special fate that Hitler had reserved for the Jews of Europe became known in the West.
     From early 1933 to late 1942 Jews were being systematically singled out and victimized by the Nazi regime.
     By the time the news of the mass murder of Jews emerged in the middle of the war, those who had been following the news of Nazi crimes for ten years readily and naturally assimilated it to the already-existing framework.
     Clearly, it was following Kristallnachtthat large numbers of Jews were rounded up placed in concentration camps and their property confiscated by Hitler.
     Up to that point, German Jewish deaths were a tiny fraction of those inflicted on Jews by murderous bands of Ukrainian anti-Soviet forces twenty years earlier. Though American Jews responded with deeper dismay and horror to prewar Nazi anti-Semitism than did gentile Americans, their reaction was not unmixed with a weary fatalism.
     In the West, the onset of the war resulted in less rather than more attention being paid to the fate of the Jews. The beginning of the military dispatches from the battlefronts drove Jewish persecution from the front pages of the world's major newspapers. Kristallnacht, in which dozens of Jews were killed, had been on the front page of the New York Times for more than a week; as the wartime Jewish death toll passed through thousands and into millions, it was never again featured so prominently.
     From the autumn of 1939 to the autumn of 1941 everyone's attention was riveted on military events: the war at sea, the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
|     As Americans confronted what appeared to be the imminent prospect of unchallenged Nazi dominion over the entire European continent, it was hardly surprising that except for some Jews, few paid much attention to what was happening to Europe's Jewish population under Nazi rule.
     The deportation of German and Austrian Jews to Polish ghettos had brought enormous suffering no one doubted. Beyond this, little was known with any certainty, and the fragmentary reports reaching the West were often contradictory.
     Thus in December 1939 a press agency first estimated that a quarter of a million Jews had been killed; two weeks later the agency reported that losses were about one tenth that number. (Similar wildly differing estimates recurred throughout the war, no doubt leading many to suspend judgment on the facts and suspect exaggeration.
     In March 1943 The Nation wrote of seven thousand Jews being massacred each week, while The New Republic used the same figure as a conservative daily estimate.)
     In the course of 1940, 1941, and 1942 reports of atrocities against Jews began to accumulate. But these, like the numbers cited, were often contradictory.
| In the nature of the situation, there were no firsthand reports from Western journalists. Rather, they came from a handful of Jews who had escaped, from underground sources, from anonymous German informants, and, perhaps most unreliable of all, from the Soviet government.
     If, as many suspected, the Soviets were lying about the Katyn Forest massacre, why not preserve a healthy skepticism when they spoke of Nazi atrocities against Soviet Jews?
     Thus, after the Soviet recapture of Kiev, the New York Times correspondent traveling with the Red Army underlined that while Soviet officials claimed that tens of thousands of Jews had been killed at Babi Yar, "no witnesses to the shooting ... talked with the correspondents"; "it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us"; "there is little evidence in the ravine to prove or disprove the story."
     The most important single report on the Holocaust that reached the West came from a then-anonymous German businessman, and was passed on in mid-1942 by Gerhard Riegner, representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland.
     But Riegner forwarded the report "with due reserve" concerning its truth. Though the main outlines of the mass-murder campaign reported by Riegner were all too true, his informant also claimed to have "personal knowledge" of the rendering of Jewish corpses into soap — a grisly symbol of Nazi atrocity now dismissed as without foundation by historians of the Holocaust. By the fall of 1943, more than a year after Riegner's information was transmitted, an internal U.S. State Department memorandum concluded that the reports were "essentially correct." But it was hard to quarrel with the accompanying observation that the 1942 reports were "at times confused and contradictory" and that they "incorporated stories which were obviously left over from the horror tales of the last war."
     Such embellishments as the soap story furthered a will to disbelieve that was common among Jews and gentiles — an understandable attitude.
     Who, after all, would want to think that such things were true? Who would not welcome an opportunity to believe that while terrible things were happening, their scale was being exaggerated; that much of what was being said was war propaganda that the prudent reader should discount?
     One British diplomat, skeptical of the Soviet story about Babi Yar, observed that "we ourselves put out rumours of atrocities and horrors for various purposes, and I have no doubt this game is widely played."
     Indeed, officials of both the U.S. Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information ultimately concluded that though the facts of the Holocaust appeared to be confirmed, they were so likely to be thought exaggerated that the agencies would lose credibility by disseminating them.
     If American newspapers published relatively little about the ongoing Holocaust, it was in part because there was little hard news about it to present — only secondhand and thirdhand reports of problematic authenticity.
     News is event oriented - bombing raids, invasions, and naval battles are the stuff of news, not delayed, often hearsay accounts of the wheels of the murder machine grinding relentlessly on. And for senior news editors the experience of having been bamboozled by propaganda during the First World War was not something they'd read about in history books; they had themselves been made to appear foolish by gullibly swallowing fake atrocity stories, and they weren't going to let it happen again.
     Perhaps another reason for limited press attention to the continuing murder of European Jewry was that, in a sense, it didn't seem interesting.
     This is not a decadent aestheticism but is in the very nature of "the interesting": something that violates our expectations. We are interested in the televangelist caught with the bimbo, the gangster who is devout in his religious observance: vice where we expect virtue, virtue where we expect vice; that which shatters our preconceptions.
     To a generation that was not witness to the apparently limitless depravity of the Nazi regime, the Holocaust may tell us something about what mankind is capable of.
     But Americans in the early forties took it for granted that Nazism was the embodiment of absolute evil, even if the sheer scale of its crimes was not appreciated. The repetition of examples was not, as a result, "interesting." (For some dedicated anti-Communists, including a number of Jewish intellectuals writing for Partisan Review and The New Leader, it was Soviet iniquity, played down in the press during the wartime Russian-American honeymoon, that was more interesting, and more in need of exposure.)
     Throughout the war few Americans were aware of the scale of the European Jewish catastrophe. By late 1944 three quarters of the American population believed that the Germans had "murdered many people in concentration camps," but of those willing to estimate how many had been killed, most thought it was 100,000 or fewer.
     By May 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, most people guessed that about a million (including, it should be noted, both Jews and non-Jews) had been killed in the camps.
     That the man in the street was ill informed about the Holocaust, as about so much else, is hardly shocking. But lack of awareness was common among the highly placed and generally knowledgeable as well: only at the very end of the war did ignorance dissipate. William Casey, later the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was head of secret intelligence in the European theater for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA.
     William L. Shirer, the best-selling author of Berlin Diary, who during the war was a European correspondent for CBS, reported that it was only at the end of 1945 that he learned "for sure" about the Holocaust; the news burst upon him "like a thunderbolt."
      It has often been said that when the full story of the ongoing Holocaust reached the West, beginning in 1942, it was disbelieved because the sheer magnitude of the Nazi plan of mass murder made it, literally, incredible — beyond belief.
     There is surely a good deal to this, but perhaps at least as often, the gradually emerging and gradually worsening news from Europe produced a kind of immunity to shock.
     A final point on disbelief. Accounts of the persecution of Jews between the fall of 1939 and the summer of 1941 often spoke of "extermination" and "annihilation."
     This was not prescience but hyperbole, and prudent listeners took it as such. By the following years, when such words were all too accurate, they had been somewhat debased by premature invocation.
     For most Americans, the Pacific conflict was a matter of much greater concern than the war in Europe. Working fourteen hours a day in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the future playwright Arthur Miller observed "the near absence among the men I worked with ... of any comprehension of what Nazism meant — we were fighting Germany essentially because she had allied herself with the Japanese who had attacked us at Pearl Harbor."
     American soldiers and sailors were continuously engaged in combat with the Japanese from the beginning to the end of the war — first retreating, then advancing across the islands of the Pacific. It was not until the last year of the war, after the Normandy invasion, that there was equal attention given to the European theater.
     Certainly in popular representations of the war, especially in the movies, it was the Japanese who were America's leading enemy. "Axis atrocities" summoned up images of American victims of the Bataan Death March — not of Europeans, Jewish or gentile, under the Nazi heel.
     For all of these reasons, the murder of European Jewry, insofar as it was understood or acknowledged, was just one among the countless dimensions of a conflict that was consuming the lives of tens of millions around the globe. It was not "the Holocaust"; it was simply the underestimated Jewish fraction of the holocaust then engulfing the world.

     [Editor's Note: Mr. Novick's new book The Holocaust in American Life is available from Houghton Mifflin Co. this month. About $18.00 Hardcover - 320 pages;ISBN: 0395840090.]

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