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June 11, 2012 3:22 pm

How America First Learned of the Holocaust

avatar by Rafael Medoff /

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Shmuel Zygelbojm, a Jewish member of the London-based Polish Government in Exile, played a major role in publicizing the Bund Report. Photo: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Seventy years ago this month America learned, for the first time, about the systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews—but Allied officials and some leading newspapers downplayed the news.

In late 1941 and early 1942, Western diplomats and journalists received scattered information about Nazi massacres of many thousands of Jews in German-occupied Poland and Russia. But the news was difficult to confirm and sounded to many like the usual travails of war.

The turning point came in late May 1942, when a courier from the Jewish Socialist Bund of Poland reached England with a shocking report. It began: “From the day the Russo-German war broke out, the Germans embarked on the physical extermination of the Jewish population on Polish soil.”

The Bund Report stressed that the killings were not isolated outbursts, but part of a systematic plan to “annihilate all the Jews in Europe,” town by town, country by country. The report described how in villages throughout Poland and Western Russia, German troops marched the Jewish residents to a nearby forest or ravine and machine-gunned them into giant pits. The Bund also detailed the killing of Jews in the Chelmno camp in mobile death vans—trucks whose exhaust fumes were pumped back into the passenger cabin.

Some 700,000 Jews had already been murdered, the Bund Report calculated. At a follow-up press conference in June, World Jewish Congress officials in London reported that the death toll had passed one million. (The real number was already close to 2 million.)

BBC Radio devoted several broadcasts to the story, and the London Times and other British newspapers published it prominently. The response of the American press, however, was much weaker. The Chicago Tribune, for example, relegated the news to 11 lines on page 6, and reported vaguely that the Jews had perished as a result of “ill treatment” by the Germans. The Los Angeles Times gave it two paragraphs on page 3.

The coverage in the New York Times was particularly important because many other newspapers looked to the Times—as they still do—to decide if a particular story deserves attention. On June 27, the Times buried the Bund story at the end of a column of short news items from Europe. Five days later, the Times reported on the World Jewish Congress’s press conference—but the Times diluted the news by asserting that the death toll “probably includes many who died of maltreatment in concentration camps, starvation in ghettos or forced labor” rather than mass murder.

Then, on July 4, the Times tried to pull the rug out from under the Bund Report. An unsigned news analysis, published on page 4, claimed the Jewish death toll could be anywhere “from 100,000 to 1,500,000.” The Germans “treat the Jews according to whether they are productive or nonproductive,” the Times asserted. The high mortality rate among “nonproductive” Jews was due to “starvation and illtreatment” rather than mass executions. Eyewitness accounts of mass graves with 40,000 bodies at Zhitomir “appear to have been based on hearsay.”

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations, refrained from calling on the Allied governments to take any steps to rescue European Jews. Photo: courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Meanwhile, the Allies were trying to bury the story. A few weeks after the Bund Report arrived, officials of the U.S. Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information began meeting in Washington under the auspices of their new Committee on War Information Policy. They decided to withhold news about Nazi massacres of Jews, lest it lead to “hatred of all members of the races guilty of such actions” or provoke retaliation against American POWs.

In response to the Bund Report, the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith and the Jewish Labor Committee organized a rally at Madison Square Garden in July 1942 that drew a capacity crowd of 20,000. But AJC president Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the other speakers refrained from calling on the Allied governments to take any steps to rescue European Jews. The protest was limited to expressions of sorrow over the killing, and hope for a speedy Allied victory over the Nazis.

“It is somewhat difficult to put all the blame for complacency on British and American statesmen…when Jewish leaders made no visible attempt to put pressure on their governments for any active policy of rescue,” Prof. Yehuda Bauer, of Hebrew University and Yad Vashem, has written. “The Jewish leadership could hardly plead lack of knowledge.”

Bauer blames the restrained Jewish response on doubts about the news, “loyalty to President Roosevelt,” and “fear of arousing anti-Semitism if the United States were requested to act specifically in the interest of Jews in Europe.”

Prof. David S. Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews, contends that Wise and other Jewish leaders “were still in shock—the news from Europe was so horrific, and so unprecedented, that it took time to understand and absorb it.” It would take several more months of such reports, and a grudging confirmation by the Roosevelt administration at the end of 1942, before Jewish leaders began proposing concrete plans for rescue—but even then, the struggle to bring about Allied action would prove formidable indeed.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”

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  • douglas wyman

    know nothing about my name someone thought it might jewish only checking name only can go back great grandparent on my father side only have mothers name

  • that’s the most unforgivable thing a government and media could do – hide the truth and turn a blind eye. how could they pretend it wasn’t happening at all when they very well know innocent lives are lost every minute they deny?

    • Perhaps they considered the Jews expendable? Maybe they thought not too many of the Jews would be so targeted as to supply Genocide a newer reference point with the 6,000,000 Murdered in The Holocaust?

      • Andreas W

        I think it had to do with (as stated) not wanting to rouse anti-semitism in the US thinking they only went to war to save Jews… But also at the time it was harder to verify the claims. Even though everyone was talking about it, if an American didn’t see it how do they know it really happened? It’s hard to believe most countries reports because they were all at war, could be wartime disaster or it could be false reports to stir Jews in the US to push for joining the war. It’s hard to imagine a time where press is controlled, but it could be possible that the US was fully aware and just didn’t want to be brought into the problem.

  • kevobx

    Why did Hitler gather up all the women, so that the men followed behind, becoming his army? In 1948 the state of Israel is born, claiming to be Jews of the Bible, as one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Now the state of Israel is ruling, & wants Jerusalem, to be it’s capital? *Zechariah 12:9 And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will seek to destroy all nations that come against Jerusalem. *John 4:21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.

    • Shannan Badgett

      You are an anti-Semite. Thank you.

      • Stanley Gornish


      • Do not thank him! Respond with reason and Factually accuse him with the Truth of the 6,000,000 Murdered Jews of The Holocaust!

    • Lest we forget? There were Women like Grese, Koch, Mandel or Oberhauser! All Murderers of Jews in accordance with hitler’s demands1

  • As a member of the Irgun here in the U.S. during the early 40s, my dad and his comrades tried to “raise the roof” & let the world know of the massacres taking place in Europe. Nobody wanted to hear it. According to him, the most adamant deniers & the most virulent opposition came from “the Liberal Jews on the campus of City College.” To the day he died my father lamented that those people would fight for every other cause while their own people were being slaughtered.

    • moshe brodetzky

      I was at City College with Dave Haimson,Misha Arens, Seymour Rosenberg,Seldon Bard who formed BETAR on the campuses. To this day I remember being spit at as a tool of British Colonialism by one of the first girls admitted to CCNY. I was coming early to classes and writing in chalk on the corner of the blackboard the headlines from the Yiddish papers (that my mother read to me before leaving for school) about the daily massacres against Jews. This was the era of the SOVIET- GERMAN alliance

    • The Truth was out there! You only have to look to The New York Times to see even the detail of Chelmno, Belzec and the Mass Murder of 33,771 Jews of Kiev at Babi Yar were all known!!

  • kevobx

    Synagogue and temple worshippers are called holocaust surviviors by Hitler hands in truth, but the real Jews of the Bible are called Israelites, not semites or Israeli. Semites were never in bondage to slavery (John 8:33) who is calling God a liar? *1st Samuel 10:19

    • Stanley Gornish

      You are wrapped up in a cloak of details that seem to obscure your understanding of what you posted; for example “Semite” refers to people who lived in the Middle East and spoke languages with a common root so of course Hebrews were Semites; the word “Semitic” is an adjective derived from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Bible (Genesis 5.32, 6.10, 10.21.) as for Jews never being slaves, the Romans carried Jewish slaves back to Rome –you’ll see an arch commemorating it in the Roman Forum; and Judeans were, of course, Jews who formed one of the two kingdoms after Solomon. You are a confused person who has inferred from your readings what you think are truths. They are neither truths nor facts; just your opinions.

      • We need semantics when we should be discussing why the World looked on as 6,000,000 Jews, Semites, were slaughtered in The Holocaust!

    • Holocaust Survivors are those Jews who escaped hitler’s intention to have them Murdered. They are those Jews who hid in the Ghettoes, Lived in the Death Camps and clawed their way out of the Killing Sites of Europe! They struggled in the Concentration Camps, hid in Walled up Annexes to Rooms and Factory’s. They are Children who were disguised at Christians or were bundled across borders for safety. They are The Jews of Europe who in the midst of The Catastrophe, Survived it!

  • And seventy years on …. not much has changed. Not the New York Times, nor the American Jews
    Islamic world must have nuclear weapons, says Iran

    Center for a New American Security’s report and its weakest link

    • Stanley Gornish

      The New York Times has done more damage to the United States and to Jewish people than many of our worst enemies. Durante, Time’s reporter in Moscow covering the Stalin era wrote glowing stories about Stalin and overlooked his many atrocities. The Times also buried in its back pages the Holocaust until it couldn’t hide it any more. The Times has their nose up in the air looking down at Israel, never missing an opportunity to say something negative. I believe The NY Times’ attitude stems from the fact that its founders converted from Jews to Episcopalians and, with a little twinge discomfort about their family history, now try to out-WASP the WASPS.

    • Intolerances still persist! Racists still insist and People are Murdered with intolerable consistency!

    • We have not learned well enough the lessons of The Holocaust! 6,000,000 Jews were Murdered so that future Genocides could be watched out for and tackled before they took root again! Where profit is to be made, at any cost, People will be Murdered along Ethnic, Religious, Race or Creed lines! We failed in our Moral duty to stem the flow of Jewish Blood spilled in Europe during WWII, what excuse do we offer now?

  • In his “The War and the Jews” published in 1940, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in his first chapter, , already ppinted at the beginnings of mass executions of Jews and these were based on newspaper reports. Examples:
    ( 0

    In the township of Grojec, in the Warsaw district,
    the Jews were forced to set fire to their chief synagogue last Saturday. A number of Jews of the same township were shot dead by the Nazis while returning home from forced labour.

    Hundreds of Jews, including many women and children, were killed in the town of Bendzin, near Katowice, when the Nazis set fire to Zachodnia Street, which is inhabited exclusively by Jews. Any Jew trying to escape was shot dead. Altogether several hundred men, women and children died in the flames, or were shot dead by the Nazis. All the synagogues in Bendzin have also been burnt down.

    Wholesale executions of Jews by Nazis in many towns
    in the province of Lodz are openly admitted in official
    reports of Nazi police officers, extracts of which have
    been published in the Schlesische Zeitung of Breslau.”

    Moreover, he quotes Arthur Szyk:

    Arthur Szyk…also a genius for finding the mot juste. To describe the attitude of the majority of the Allied statesmen and the greater part of the Allied Press to this “Jewish” aspect of the war, he uses the word pornography. “They treat us, he says, “as a pornographical subject. Pornography covers a most important department of life and nature; nobody denies it, but you cannot discuss it in polite society it is not done’. There is a sort of shamefaced conspiracy, almost entirely dominating Parliament, the Press…