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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]