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Historian Chronicles U.S. Indifference to Holocaust Reports

June 09, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

On May 18, 1944, the New York Times reported on Page 5 that 1 million Hungarian Jews seemed doomed under Nazi rule and printed on Page 1 a much less significant story--that the local Republican Party had changed its theme song.

Such editing decisions at the leading American newspaper of the period and at 500 newspapers across the nation convinced UCLA historian Deborah Lipstadt that American papers downplayed or ignored the Holocaust story.

Surrounded by Judaica in her Beverlywood living room recently, the redheaded New York-born professor said that was unfortunate because publishing more stories or displaying them more prominently might have changed public opinion in a small way.

That change might have allowed the U.S. government to act in limited situations to save several thousand lives, as in 1939 when the S.S. St. Louis sailed from Hamburg full of Jewish refugees but was refused admission to Cuba and sent back to Europe.

Arguments like these in her recent study, "Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-45," helped persuade the Brandeis-Bardin Institute of Simi Valley to end a 16-month search and select Lipstadt over 63 other candidates as its new director. She succeeds Ronald Brauner, who resigned.

Jewish Cemetery

Surrounded in her home by pictures of the Jewish cemetery in Prague and of an elderly, long-curled scribe intently copying the Old Testament onto parchment with a quill, Lipstadt said recently that "one of the challenges and maybe even tragedies of American Jewish life" is that "so many Jews know so little about their background.

"They know things like the Holocaust, but they don't know about the joys, they don't know about the positive, they don't know 'Why remain a Jew?' There's . . . so much that it stands for, and so many ways it can enhance one's life."

Administering a budget of more than $2 million and a staff of about 40, she wants to teach institute participants about the positive aspects of Judaism through expanded family programs, including camps.

It is a job for which she seems to have been preparing all her life. She said that while she grew up in New York her late father, who owned a cemetery-stone business, "related to his Master in a very personal and private way . . . and his respect for all of God's creations was overwhelming." Her mother, a former newspaper columnist, collects antique Judaica.

Junior Year

She got interested in Jewish history during her junior year of college at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While taking courses in American and Jewish history, she said, she noticed that "everything I was doing was on American Jewish history. . . . And I said . . . somebody is telling me something here."

Lipstadt, who is single, earned a Ph.D. in American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and then helped start the Jewish studies program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

After five years in Seattle she left for UCLA in 1979 seeking to be part of a larger Jewish community.

She sits on two boards at the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles and since Jan. 1 has visited New York, Chicago, Houston, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Oakland and other cities addressing young Jewish leaders on contemporary issues.

Despite her involvement in Jewish life, she had no thought about a book on Holocaust press coverage until a student interrupted her in class.

She was arguing that the U.S. government had received reports about the Holocaust and that American newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s must have printed stories on them.

"I don't believe you," a student blurted out. "I don't believe that people like my parents could have known about it and done nothing and then said that they didn't know."

The student's anguish and the silence that told her that other class members wanted the question answered persuaded her to take students to the library to see what American newspapers had reported. What she found--or didn't find--surprised her.

'Just Wouldn't Be There'

"I'd expect to find something on the front page, and it'd be on Page 6," she said. "I'd expect to see something someplace, and it just wouldn't be there."

She went to Hyde Park, N.Y., to read President Franklin Roosevelt's papers and to check a reference to Holocaust newspaper stories clipped by his Administration.

Boxes of Clippings

A librarian said the clippings were in the National Archives in Washington. Lipstadt raced to Washington and persuaded an archivist to look for them.

After two days, archivists began bringing up boxes of clippings piled high on hand trucks. The grimy, dusty files had been unexamined for 40 years.

The clippings from 500 large newspapers allowed her to expand a study of 10 leading newspapers into an investigation of the American press.

After sifting the evidence for five years, Lipstadt says she can understand journalists' skepticism about the Holocaust. After all, American newspapers had been duped by atrocity stories about the German army during World War I.

What she cannot understand, she says, is the press' indifference.

"Nor can we explain how the world of bystanders--particularly those with access to the news--were able to treat this information with such apathy," she writes.

"Both the Final Solution and the bystander's equanimity are beyond belief."

Lipstadt said she tried to be as evenhanded as possible presenting her evidence, but one item in the book moves her each time she reads it.

The story, headlined "SECRET POLISH RADIO ASKS AID, CUT OFF," appeared on Page 1 of the New York Times on April 21, 1943. It reads:

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, April 21--The secret Polish radio appealed for help tonight in a broadcast from Poland and then suddenly the station went dead. The broadcast, as heard here, said: "The last 35,000 Jews in the ghetto at Warsaw have been condemned to execution. . . .

The people are murdered. Women and children defend themselves with their naked arms.

Save us. . . .

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