by Dr. Rafael Medoff
A. M. Rosenthal, who passed away on May 10 at the age of 84, will long be remembered for his distinguished career at the New York Times. But he also deserves special recognition for his courageous willingness to acknowledge that during the Holocaust, his newspaper deliberately buried news about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
Rosenthal began as a college campus stringer for the Times in 1943, a period when, he said, Jewish reporters were often pressured to alter their bylines so they would not appear to be “too Jewish.” He was told to use the initials A. M. rather than his first name, Abraham. He covered Asia and then Eastern Europe for the Times in the 1950s, returned to New York in 1963 to become one of its editors, and was named managing editor six years later, a position he held for seventeen years. He is widely credited with significantly improving the newspaper –and helping rescue it financially– by livening up its content and style through a variety of innovative changes.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Holocaust scholars such as David Wyman began examining how the New York Times and other segments of the U.S. media covered the Holocaust. What they found was not flattering. Yet spokesmen for the Times refused to acknowledge that disturbing truth. So in September 1996, on the 100th anniversary of the Ochs-Sulzberger family’s acquisition of the Times, Rosenthal decided the time had come to squarely face the newspaper’s Holocaust record. In his column on the op-ed page of the Times, he wrote:
“For years Times editors, reporters and executives tried to explain to themselves why the paper grievously underplayed the Holocaust while it was going on,” Rosenthal wrote. “Most of the world press did the same. But what mattered to us was the record of our own paper. Stories appeared now and then about Nazis killing Jews, but usually small, inside and without even trying to deal with the total horror.”
Strong words, and they must have discomfited his friends and colleagues at the Times. But to his credit, Rosenthal did not pull his punches.
My own first contact with Rosenthal was indirect: we both appeared in Colette Fox’s 2001 History Channel documentary, Holocaust: The Untold Story. The film, which was nominated for an Emmy, focused on how the American press, especially the New York Times, covered the Holocaust. Rosenthal sets the tone in the film’s opening sequence, when he says bluntly: “If you look through [the Times’] coverage, it was wrong, it was morally and journalistically wrong!”
Later in the film, he remarks: “The charge has often been made that the New York Times’ coverage of the Holocaust was grossly inadequate. The clippings from the New York Times demonstrate that the charges were justified. Period. … [The Times’ coverage] was no good. It was paltry. It was embarrassing … If the Times had come out big on this, that would have brought a lot more attention in the country.”
And if there had been more attention paid to it, there would have been more pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intervene, whether by bombing Auschwitz or giving shelter to refugees or pressing Britain to open the gates of Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler.
The complete story of the Times and the Holocaust is revealed in Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, by Prof. Laurel Leff, which was published last year. Leff describes how the Times’ publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, an assimilated Jew and anti-Zionist, instructed his editors to downplay news about the suffering of Europe’s Jews so that the newspaper would not appear to be too concerned with Jewish matters.
I invited Rosenthal to take part in a panel discussion with Prof. Leff last year, cosponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the American Jewish Historical Society. Because of his health, he declined to appear on stage but did attend the event. When our MC, former New York Times reporter Lawrence Zuckerman, acknowledged Rosenthal’s presence, there was a round of applause from the audience. Curiously, however, one person booed.
When I ran into Rosenthal in the lobby a little while later, he asked me if I had noticed that someone had booed the mention of his name. I replied that Rabbi Stephen Wise, who gave more than his share of controversial sermons, once said that if he gave a speech and at least one person did not walk out in protest, the speech was not worth giving. Rosenthal seemed amused by that.
A.M. Rosenthal understood that you can’t please everyone, so he spent very little time worrying about pleasing anyone. Instead, he wrote frankly and fearlessly, whether he was defending Israel, championing forgotten human rights causes, or facing up to the Times’ deeply flawed coverage of the Holocaust. His powerful voice will be missed.