BROOKE GLADSTONE: In America, the early warning voices against the Nazi genocide were rebuffed and ignored. That's the contention of David Wyman, co-author of A Race Against Death: Bergson, America and the Holocaust. Peter Bergson arrived in the United States from Palestine to enlist a Jewish Army to fight in the war against Hitler. To that end he lobbied and took out splashy newspaper ads. As he learned of the Holocaust his goal changed from enlisting Jews to saving them, but Bergson faced resistance not only from the media and the government but from much of the Jewish community, cowed by a powerful strain of American anti-Semitism.
DAVID WYMAN: He did two things. One of them was publicizing; he also began the Peter Bergson called it when he spoke with me "dog work" of going into Washington, knocking on the doors of members of Congress, trying to find somebody that would be sympathetic to their cause. And he managed to put together during that year of 1941 a pretty substantial group of Congressmen, and in the meantime celebrities including many Hollywood celebrities who were supportive of him and who produced these ads. For instance, Ben Hecht, a brilliant screenwriter of that era wrote many of the ads.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's go to the moment when Bergson's goal changed. There was basically an announcement by a Rabbi Wise directing attention to the Holocaust really for the first time in any broad-scale way.
DAVID WYMAN: That's correct. And the date is November 24, 1942. Mass murder had actually begun in the summer of 1941, and some information trickled out, but it wasn't with real clarity till the summer of 1942, and in November the State Department agreed that there was no question there was a campaign under way systematically to annihilate all the Jews of Europe, and that 2 million already had been killed. And they then called Rabbi Steven Wise who was the foremost American Jewish leader of the period in to the State Department, gave him this horrible information, and suggested that he release it to the mass media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how did the mass media -- how did the newspapers respond?
DAVID WYMAN:I have in front of me a copy of the New York Times for the next morning. There is a report on Wise's press conference; it's on page 10. It's sort of in the middle of the page. It's split into three tiny columns. And what is the head on it would mean nothing. It says: Wise Gets Confirmations. And it never moves to the front page. And just to give another example, the Washington Post -- the same morning -- the Times was page 10. The Post is on page 6. It's 3 inches. Second column. About a third of the way down. And this at least has some information in the little header. I mean not -- you can't call these headlines. They're little teeny headers. Two Million Jews Slain Rabbi Wise Asserts. And this is true then throughout the media. I surveyed 12 newspapers-- on several major developments during the Holocaust, and this is the way it is throughout, throughout the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You note in your book that shortly after that there were two international conferences, one in, in Moscow and one in Bermuda, both of which took pains to list the victims of Hitler and both of which were very careful to leave out the word "Jews" among those victims.
DAVID WYMAN: Well it was worse than that. The two U.S. and the British governments decided we need to hold a conference in order to defuse the pressures. They held the conference on the island of Bermuda so nobody could get there, and they had a very, very tight hold on the 6 members of the press who were allowed to be there. They met for 12 days, and what they, they did was they went through the various plans the Jewish and other groups had submitted for possible rescue, and they always found reasons that they couldn't be done. A complete fiasco, and it was a fraud-- on the public. It was to defuse pressures, and it did -- to the public - to some extent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Peter Bergson, together with Ben Hecht wrote an ad in verse form; the first verse goes like this: FOUR MILLION JEWS WAITING FOR DEATH OH HANG AND BURN BUT QUIET, JEWS; DON'T BE BOTHERSOME SAVE YOUR BREATH. THE WORLD IS BUSY WITH OTHER NEWS. This horrified the mainstream American Jewish community which prevailed, at least for a while, on Bergson not to print this.
DAVID WYMAN:That's correct. And I guess you can understand why - because the Jewish community was not used to making a lot of noise about things. The perception of the, of the Bergson group was we've got to yell, and we don't know what to do at this point, but we've got to yell. We've got to make a noise about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you mentioned, the New York Times, a Jewish-owned newspaper--
DAVID WYMAN: Sure--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- did not play up the news of the Holocaust!
DAVID WYMAN:Yeah, that's a very good point, and the problem as far as we know -- and I'm not the one who thought up this analysis -- is the New York Times was owned by Jews who wanted very much for the Times not to be seen as a Jewish newspaper, which of course it wasn't; it was a national newspaper. And so they bent over backwards to keep Jewish news inside the paper. Actually the Times had more coverage overall than any paper I saw, and as I say, I went through a dozen of them. But you have to dig - you can dig the whole Holocaust as it developed in the Times, if you go through the inner pages and in the back pages. I even found some reports on the obituary page, by irony, and sometimes even on the sports page! Other papers -- why they didn't respond - the best hypothesis I've seen for that is that the Times was the leading paper in the country; no question about it, and certainly in foreign affairs issues. Now hypothetically but I think it very possible that the news desk editors you know, on, on other papers, would -- they had the information by the way - the AP and the UP wires are full of what's happening -- if you read those old printouts from there. The editors had these. They may very well have looked at the Times, said look, the Times has the best insight into the -- or sources -- and they're Jewish! And if they don't think this is a big enough issue that it belongs on the front page, then we--probably are right!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Once it became apparent that everything Bergson was saying about the Holocaust was true, did Bergson's status then change? Was there an apology or, or did he at least get a measure of vindication?
DAVID WYMAN: No. He was reviled as an upstart and an interloper and a sensationalist; no, you see -it's a very sad thing that a person was way ahead of his time and who, who did remarkable things in an impossible situation is not only not known but almost no recognition has been given.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Wyman, thank you very much.
DAVID WYMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David S. Wyman is the author, with Rafael Medoff of A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, British tabloid wars and Harry Potter tours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.
"Shostakovich Prelude 2 in A Minor"
by Tatiana Nikolayeva