Genocide as Wallpaper
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, January 29, 2007
Saturday was Holocaust Memorial Day, so chosen because it marks the day in 1945 when Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, was liberated—an occasion that was not reported by The New York Times at the time. To some extent the blame goes to the Red Army, which liberated the camp but whose news sense wasn’t then, as it hadn’t been before and has never been since, driven by much more than suppression and distortion. Still, the Times’ first mention of the liberation of Auschwitz was on April 3, 1945, in an article about French planes airlifting food to liberated prisoners. The timeline raises those old questions, asked and variously answered often enough, but worth the asking again in light of today’s news management: At what point does an atrocity become one to the extent that it registers on the public consciousness enough to provoke a response? In the case of the Holocaust during World War II—as indeed in the case of similar genocides against Armenians in Turkey, by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s, by the Hutus against Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994—the reaction was too late. In each case excuses for the silence or the response diminished in proportion to the improving dissemination of news. Now we’re living through a genocide in Darfur, a genocide even the president of the United States has recognized as such, and one that’s been as well reported as any. There are no excuses. Yet it goes on. There is no interest in stopping it. The indifference today looks unspeakably similar to the indifference in 1944 and 1945 to stop the Holocaust.
On April 18, 1945, the Times paper ran a long, front-page article on the liberation of Buchenwald, about the day when 1,200 German civilians from nearby Weimar were forced to go through the camp “to see for themselves the horror, brutality and human indecency perpetrated against their ‘neighbors’” at the camp. The Times’ odd ways with reporting on the murder of Jews had precedent. As Susan Tifft and Alex Jones wrote in The Trust, their 1999 biography of The Times, “A July 2, 1944, dispatch citing ‘authoritative information’ that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already been deported to their deaths and an additional 350,000 were to be killed in the next three weeks received only four column inches on page twelve, while the same day a story about Fourth of July holiday crowds ran on the front page.” It gets worse. As I was verifying the Tifft-Jones account on the Times archives, I noticed an article the following day, July 3, headlined: “Inquiry Confirms Nazi Death Camps—1,750,000 Jews Said To Have Been Put To Death by the Germans Up to April 15.” The July 3 article includes a country-by-country breakdown of Jews “eradicated” in two camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and this paragraph: “Prisoners were led into cells and ordered to strip for bathing. Then cyanide gas was said to have been released, causing death in three to five minutes. The bodies are burned in crematoriums that hold eight to ten at a time. At Birkenau there are about fifty such furnaces. They were opened March 12, 1943, by a large party of Nazi chiefs who witnessed the ‘disposal of 8,000 Jews from 9 o’clock in the morning until 7:30 that night,’ according to the report.” The dispatch was citing from a report based on Swiss relief agency information. And where did The Times run the story? On Page 3.
On July 6, The Times ran a more detailed article about Auschwitz and Birkenau entitled “Two Death Camps Places of Horror,” on page 6. The Times owner, Arthur Sulzberger, Tifft & Jones write, “resisted singling out Jews for special treatment on the pages of the Times and battled such Jewish groups as Zionists, whom he considered wrongheaded and extreme. Like his father-in-law, he did not want the Times to be viewed as a ‘Jewish paper.’ But in his single-minded effort to achieve that end, he missed an opportunity to use the considerable power of the paper to focus a spotlight on one of the greatest crimes the world had ever known.” So: fine. Those were the journalistic decisions of editors at the Times responding to the desires of Arthur Sulzberger. But does that mean no one in the Roosevelt administration was reading pages 3 and 6 of the Times?
The reports were detailed enough and obvious enough by the middle of 1944 to compel something, one should think—starting with the bombing of the camps’ machinery of death, of the rails leading to the camps, of the cities surrounding the camps if it had to come to that, without whose material support the camps couldn’t function with that German efficiency that made their Germans proud. Almost a year later—about the time of that Times story about Weimar’s Germans being forced to witness Birkenau after the fact—CBS’s Edward Murrow had famously beaten the Times to the story (not that journalistic scoops have any meaning when it comes to that sort of atrocity: no one was at Auschwitz-Birkenau, after all) to the camp. He’d been embedded in the Third Army. On April 15, 1945, he filed a radio report (you can hear it in full here, if you have Real Player) that remains one of the most immediately wrenching works of genocide journalism to date. No affectations. No Maileresque bombast. Just the words of the story: An excerpt:
In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children — enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts.... We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that 200 had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said: “tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.” He pulled back the blanket from a man's feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move. I asked to see the kitchen. It was clean. The German in charge....showed me the daily ration. One piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every 24 hours. He had a chart on the wall. Very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each 10 men who died. He had to account for the rations and he added: “We’re very efficient here.”
Murrow was particularly good that day. But genocides have never lacked for well-timed, necessary journalism to tell the kind of stories necessary to shake people to the core. What they’ve lacked more often than not is the kind of response that would honor the journalism that shook people awake and, much more to the point, the victims of genocide, each of whose additional death amounts to a victory for futility for having been allowed to happen, unanswered. That, it seems, is where we are today. Darfur is the genocide of the moment. But the reaction (and lack of one) doesn’t affect only genocides. Iraq, as futile and preventable a civil war as any, is the other kind of atrocity that has something close to saturation coverage without as yet provoking anything close to the kind of outrage that brings down governments and ends wars. The indifference becomes a different form of efficiency, the kind from which some people must be profiting considerably. So it goes on.