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 two 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 eleven 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 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 lab,” rather than mass murder.
On July 4, an unsigned news analysis in the Times, 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 ill-treatment” rather than mass executions. Eyewitness accounts of mass graves with 40,000 bodies at Zhitomir “appear to have been based on hearsay.”
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.
Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable, pp.59-60;
Leff, Buried by The Times, pp.136-142.