by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Sixty years ago this week, the first detailed, eyewitness description of Auschwitz finally reached the American public–but only after an attempt by the State Department and the Office of War Information to suppress it.
After escaping from Auschwitz in April 1944, Slovak Jewish refugees Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler compiled a detailed 25-page report on the mass murder process which they had eyewitnessed during their two years in the death camp.
Jewish leaders in Bratislava delivered the report to foreign diplomats and it reached the British Foreign Office in late July. “Even if one allows for customary Jewish exaggeration, these stories are frightful,” one official grudgingly conceded in a note written in the margins. The report was slowly passed through various British government offices, and did not reach the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board until early November.
At least it had finally arrived at the right address. The War Refugee Board had been established by President Roosevelt in January 1944 in response to intense pressure by Congress and Jewish activists for U.S. government-sponsored rescue action. From the start, the WRB found itself confronted by serious obstacles: the president, the State Department, and the War Department opposed substantial action on behalf of the Jews, or even calling attention to the Jews’ suffering, lest that increase pressure on the U.S. to grant them haven.
A meeting of the American, British, and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943 had issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations. It mentioned “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages …Cretan peasants … the people of Poland”–but not Jews. Even the president’s 1944 message commemorating the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt did not mention the Jews. Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Jewish rescue activist, remarked bitterly that Europe’s Jews were being “treated[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.”
After reading and Vrba and Wetzler eyewitness report on Auschwitz, War Refugee Board director John Pehle prepared to release it to the news media, together with additional documents which verified the information. But the State Department and the Office of War Information, learning of Pehle’s plan, strongly objected.
The Office of War Information’s chiefs had previously instructed their staff that coverage of the Nazi mass-murders would be “confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people.” OWI director Elmer Davis now called Pehle into his office and berated him for planning to release the Vrba-Wetzler report, arguing that “the public would not believe that such things were happening and as a result would be inclined to question the government’s credibility on other information released concerning the war effort.” One of Davis’s aides argued that the Auschwitz information seemed to be more of “a multiplicity of ‘mean little things’” rather than proof of systematic annihilation. Davis wanted the War Refugee Board to issue a statement saying it could not vouch for the validity of the report, but Pehle refused.
The Auschwitz report received substantial coverage in the American press. It was one of the rare occasions on which a Holocaust-related article appeared on the front page of the New York Times, according to Prof. Laurel Leff in her forthcoming book, Buried By the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge University Press). However, Leff notes, the front-page part of the Times article emphasized that “Jews and Christians alike” were being murdered by the Nazis, and only in the continuation of the article, inside the paper, was it clear that the vast majority of the Auschwitz victims were Jews. Moreover, she writes, “the Times never ran an editorial [about the Vrba Wetzler report], nor did it mention [it] in the Week in Review section.”
Years later, Rudolf Vrba published an account of his experiences in the Holocaust, called “I Cannot Forgive.” The title referred to the perpetrators of the genocide. But had he known about the behind-the-scenes struggle within the Roosevelt administration over the publication of his report, Vrba might well have also been referring to the unforgivable attempts by senior U.S. government officials to suppress the news about Auschwitz.