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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 135-138

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Two New Films on America's Response to the Holocaust

Walter Laqueur

They Looked Away (2000), directed by Stuart G. Erdheim (Running time: 48 minutes)
Holocaust: The Untold Story (2001), by The Freedom Forum/Newseum TV Productions; directed by Collette P. Fox, Megan Garnett, and Eddie Munden (Running time: 43 minutes)

The enormous role of documentaries is obvious: they reach a far wider audience than an article in a specialized journal or a book with hundreds of footnotes. Furthermore, the visual impact is very important. To say that a hundred or a thousand people were killed is a statistical statement; a picture showing corpses or skeletons, or indeed survivors of the camps immediately after their liberation, is immeasurably more powerful than the most shattering statistic.

The shortcomings of the medium are equally well known: documentaries have seldom if ever enough time to develop a theme, they cannot go into any detail, they can but seldom deal with any topic in depth. They cannot replace the written word, but they are of great importance in their own right.

The documentaries under review address themselves to the questions that have been discussed for a long time and, in all probability, will be debated for many years to come: Why was no greater publicity given to the news of the murder of millions of Jews as it happened, and why was so little done to save at least some of them? Some believe, along with Mr. Arthur Schlesinger (following Prof. Peter Novick) in his recent autobiography (A Life in the Twentieth Century), that these controversies exploded because those American Jews viewing assimilation as a threat seized upon the Holocaust as the last bond holding Jews together and the vital means of restoring a sense of Jewishness. But this explains, at best, why the controversies were so bitter; the argument does not go to the core of the issue, nor does it help us understand why there was so little awareness at the time and so little willingness to explore ways and means to rescue.

Together with a group of distinguished academics who must have been reasonably well-informed about events in Europe, Schlesinger worked during the war for the Research and Analysis branch of OSS. It stands to reason that these academics read not only the secret information [End Page 135] that reached their office, but also the daily newspapers. Laurel Leff of Northeastern University, who makes an appearance in Holocaust: The Untold Story, examined every issue of the New York Times between 1939 and the end of the war, and found some 1,100 news items referring to the Holocaust--that is to say, about one every other day. Deborah Lipstadt, who also appears in this documentary, reaches the conclusion that reading the American press during the war conveyed a general picture of the massacre of the Jews. If this is exaggerated, it is not exaggerated by very much.

Yet Schlesinger quotes with evident approval his friend, the late Noel Annan, who was in British intelligence: "No one at the end of the war, as I recollect, realized that the figure of Jewish dead ran into millions." But since a figure of millions had been repeatedly mentioned in the media, including the London Times and the New York Times, this leads to an investigation, not for the first time, into the meaning of the word "realize." The New York Times announced the murder of hundreds of thousands, and later of millions, deep inside the paper, and this is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the affair. If the editors thought that the news were correct, these items should have been featured on the front page; if not, they should not have been printed at all, or, at least with the usual reservations and disclaimers such as " according to information that cannot be confirmed" or words to this effect. They seem to have believed it and disbelieved it at the same time. In any case, this kind of news was inconvenient for a...


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