"People seem to think that if America knew, we would have done something," said Ron Hollander, a professor of Journalism from Montclair University during a lecture at the Bayonne Community Center in May. Hollander, however, said that while the story perhaps did not get the attention it deserved, most of the national press did publish stories on the slaughter.
A Fulbright scholar who taught journalism in China for two years, Hollander teaches the only course in the country devoted solely to the press coverage of the Holocaust.
In his May program, "The Holocaust and the Press: What did we know and when?", Hollander presented slides of newspaper clippings from the war years showing that the press had indeed reported news of the atrocities. One of the papers that tended to be the least vigilant was The New York Times.
Hollander and his students have developed original scholarship, and he has lectured at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. and Oxford University, as well as for community groups. He has also written articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
One New York Times story dated Oct. 28, 1941 had a headline that read "Nazis seek to rid Europe of all Jews; Mass Transportation to Polish Zone continues unabated."
Another front-page banner in the Seattle Daily Times from June 1, 1942 reported "Jews slain total 200,000." A Boston Daily Globe report from June 26, 1942 reported "Mass Murders of Jews in Poland pass 700,000 mark; Many made to dig their own graves."
Hollander painted a picture of American society during the time, and suggested that numerous reasons existed for American inaction.
"Some may have believed this was just too awful for belief," he said.
Problems finding reliable sources
This is perhaps why the press in general didn't report the stories as strongly as they might have. Unlike with other news stories where the facts could be verified, the press was often receiving information through various tenuous networks.
"The news services had reporters at battles, but no reporters at the death camps," he said. "Reports came from possibly tainted sources, from underground leaders or resistance fighters. That's one reason the media tended to play down these stories."
Most of the media did report the stories in one way or another, such as in December 1942 when the League of Nations declared that the extermination of Jews was underway in Europe.
"The myth is that the American public didn't know it was going on, and if it had, it would have risen up and demanded action," Hollander said.
But as his lecture clearly showed, major papers in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New York, San Francisco and Seattle all published reports of the mass murder, and America did not rise up in moral outrage, even though the U.S. had entered the war in December of 1941.
Anti-Semitism in America may also have figured in lack of response, Hollander said. One poll taken by a responsible firm showed that a significant number of Americans believed Jews were more of a threat to American security than those groups against whom America was fighting at the time.
One polling organization called the Opinion Research Group showed that 24 percent of those polled felt Jews posed the most dangers to America, while only 9 percent felt the Japanese were the most dangerous, and 6 percent felt the Germans were.
Why didn't the Allies bomb the death camps?
Even during the war years, some questioned the Allied response to the reports, asking why rail lines were not bombed and the murder factories not put out of business.
While the military response at the time claimed the Allies could not afford to send missions to these places, witnesses on the ground at the camps said later that they saw the planes flying over and had hoped they would drop bombs on the death camps.
"There was a controversy as to why we did not do anything," Hollander said. "We were bombing railroads near the camps. We were bombing factories that produced rubber and ball bearings. The death camps were factories which killed Jews. If they were going to bomb factories that made ball bearings, wouldn't you think they would also bomb factories designed to exterminate people?"
America did not make it easy for Jews fleeing extermination, either.
In fact, the United States admitted more prisoners of war from the European conflict than it admitted Jews. The red tape, which often involved filing out a 14-page application for a visa along with carbon duplicates, was only one of the obstacles Jews faced in trying to seek asylum here. While some public officials were very concerned, many simply didn't see any political advantage to helping the Jews gain access.
Some members of the local Jewish community, however, said synagogues often played an important role in providing safe havens for European Jews.
Joseph Wigdor, a surviving member of the Wigdor Jewelers in Bayonne, said that each synagogue worked to bring people over in order to escape Nazi oppression.