When did America Know About the Holocaust?
February 20, 2007 9:41 AM   Subscribe

How widespread was the knowledge of the concentration camps outside of Germany, and displaced Jewish families, in the 30's and 40's? When did the general American public become aware of what was happening?

Prompted by the recent discovery of Otto Frank's letters trying to secure visas for his family, I'm curious as to just when the knowledge of the mass death taking place in Europe became known beyond those directly affected. I've read the Wikipedia article on the Holocaust, and though it indicates the Brits had confirmation around '41, it's less clear for the Americans.
posted by canine epigram to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Is this what you're talking about? It's from a link in the wikipedia article.
posted by jourman2 at 9:57 AM on February 20, 2007

Walter Laqueur's The Terrible Secret documents what information appeared when in American and British newspapers.
posted by fuzz at 10:07 AM on February 20, 2007

In June 1939, the SS St. Louis, carrying nearly a thousand German Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution, was refused permission to dock in the U.S. on Roosevelt's direct orders. Canada and Cuba both also refused to let them in. The ship returned to Europe, and most of the refugees eventually were killed.
posted by scody at 10:27 AM on February 20, 2007

There's a section of our (soon-to-be updated) bibliography about the United States and the Holocaust that lists books on this subject. In short, the full extent of what was happening in the camps--including gassings and forced labor--was not known until after the liberation, but credible accounts of mass murder made their way to the U.S. government by late 1942. (Earlier accounts were unreliable, even if some of them turned out to be more-or-less true.) For the average American who got their news from the New York Times, et al, news coverage of the concentration camps was part of the larger coverage of the war. I would guess that Americans probably paid more attention to military effort than news of deportations, etc. Plus there was extensive propaganda on both sides, and it was difficult for government officials, let alone "average Americans," to figure out what was to be believed.

This is not to discount the role of antisemitism and indifference in how people reacted to news of deportations and the camps, but most for most people their attention simply wasn't focused on that.

If you have more specific questions you can e-mail me at rcoleman AT ushmm.org.
posted by arco at 10:29 AM on February 20, 2007

FWIW, I asked my grandpa this question - he was a Canadian soldier during WW2. He had mentioned seeing the camps but not knowing what they were for.
posted by Deep Dish at 10:37 AM on February 20, 2007

Response by poster: That first link does seem to nail it. Thank you!
posted by canine epigram at 10:48 AM on February 20, 2007

I suspect that a lot of Americans (and probably Canadians and Britons, too) were hesitant to believe reports of the Holocaust in part because during WWI, there were much-hyped reports of systematic German atrocities against civilians that turned out not to be true. People looked at WWI propaganda and took some lessons from it that turned out not to apply to WWII.
posted by craichead at 11:16 AM on February 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

What craichead said, and it wasn't just Americans. From Mark Mazower's (superb) Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews: "The BBC's broadcast in December 1942 accusing the Germans of massacres in Poland had reached some. Yet when one elderly Jewish man from central Europe heard this in Salonica he remembered the First World War and dismissed it angrily as 'English atrocity propaganda.'" The propagandists who lied about German atrocities in WWI to whip up war fever have a lot to answer for; I hope at least some of them had trouble sleeping at night when that became apparent.
posted by languagehat at 12:10 PM on February 20, 2007

If the world's reaction to the current genocides are any sign, I'm not sure it would have mattered much if people had found out earlier.
posted by tkolar at 12:10 PM on February 20, 2007

Former NYC Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia publicly and loudly railed against Nazi Germany as early as 1938. It's not clear from my reading on the subject when exactly he knew that the Holocaust was going on, but his sister was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1944.

My guess is that if he knew about the pogroms as far back as 1938, and given his prominent connections to President Franklin Roosevelt and having close Jewish relatives, he probably had information about Jews being murdered fairly early, relative to the country as a whole.

I'm not sure this relates to answering about the level of the general American public's awareness, but it might provide a starting point for further research.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:40 PM on February 20, 2007

I just want to second Dasein's recommendation of Samantha Powers's book, A Problem from Hell. Riveting, angry writing. The chapter on the Holocaust (and the origin of the term 'genocide') put me in a funk for days.
posted by waxbanks at 1:43 PM on February 20, 2007

Agree with arco. Rumors made their way to America, and people knew about concentration camps (Rick mentions the threat of being 'detained' in one at the end of Casablanca -- "... isn't that right, Louie?"
"I'm afraid Major Strassor would insist") but the extermination camps wouldn't become known until the liberation of Belsen in 1945. Don't forget the term "Holocaust" wasn't even in common usage until the 1978 mini-series.
posted by Rash at 2:43 PM on February 20, 2007

I did a lot of research on the Communist press and their reporting of the Holocaust. Even they failed to guage the scale of the murder.

I also asked a lot of people who were adults in WW2. My parents (gentiles who, unlike their parents, had a few actual Jewish friends) and their friends (many of them Jewish) were very candid that North Americans were much more anti-Semitic than anyone of my generation could possibly believe. The war wasn't about the Jews at all; the war was to protect the United States and its allies. There was very little compassion for Jewish refugees, and not much interest when boats were turned away. Many people viewed Jews as part of the war that just wouldn't leave us alone.

I've been interested for quite some time about how long it took for U.S. and European society to address the holocaust. While there were reports, newsreels and a few popular books like the diary of Anne Frank, the holocaust wasn't well represented in academia or pop culture until the 1960s. In the East, there were political reasons for this. Again, my parents were 20 when the camps were liberated. They were shocked and horrified, but the true scale of it all took years to set in.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:33 PM on February 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

What "concentration camp" means to you in 2007 is probably different than what "concentration camp" would have meant to someone before World War II. From the Boer War in 1899-1902 until World War II, a concentration camp was an internment camp used to hold civilians.*

Germany founded six large concentration camps for "undesirables" before the war-- Dachau (1933), Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg (1938), Mauthausen (1938) and Ravensbrück (1939)--and the SS started using the camps for forced labor in 1938. (Mauthausen was in Austria; the other five camps camps were in Germany.) People died in the camps due to neglect, torture, or euthanasia--between 1939 and 1941 Nazi Germany killed 75,000 to 250,000 people who had intellectual or physical disabilities--but killing people wasn't the primary purpose for the camps. According to this timeline, "American newspapers and magazines reported the existence of concentration camps in early 1933," when Dachau opened. The Nazis established camps throughout occupied Europe during the war.

After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Einsatzgruppen ("task forces") started killing Jews, gypsies, Communists, partisans, and other "undesirables." The large-scale Einsatzgruppen killings started after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and they eventually killed approximately 1.5 million people, and helped the Wehrmacht and local anti-Semites to kill approximately another half million people. (One of the reasons the Nazis wanted a more efficient way of killing people was that mass murder was stressful for the Einsatzgruppen.)

At Hitler's direction, Hermann Göring asked Reinhard Heydrich for a "final solution to the Jewish question in July 1941, and Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, to organize the attempted extermination of all of the 11 million Jewish people in Europe. (Conspiracy is an excellent BBC/HBO film about the conference.)

Starting in 1941 the Nazis established six extermination camps--Auschwitz II, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka--whose primary purpose was to kill people on an industrial scale, building on the experience of the euthanasia programs in the German camps. The extermination camps are what people usually mean when they say "concentration camps." (Although the distinction got blurrier and blurrier as the war went on.)

Majdanek became the first major camp to be liberated when the Soviets discovered the abandoned camp in July 1944 (they converted in into a concentration camp for captured Polish partisans). Over the next several months the Soviets liberated Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. American journalists visited Majdanek in September 1944.

Canadian troops liberated Vught, in Holland, in October 1944, and French troops liberated Natzweiler-Struthof, the only concentration camp established in French territory, in November 1944. In in December 1944 the New York Times' Milton Bracker toured Natzweiler-Struthof, and two American Army officers inspected the camp. Ohrdruf, liberated in April 1945, was the first camp liberated by the Western Allies that had living prisoners.

So, it was known that Nazi Germany had anti-Semitic laws and concentration camps before the war, and it's possible that the Einsatzgruppen's atrocities were known (but how knows how widely reported they were?), and the Western governments and military may have known something about the death camps earlier, but the general American public probably didn't know until late 1944.

Liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps 1933-1945

* The Japanese American internment camps were concentration camps under the original meaning of the term.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:02 PM on February 20, 2007 [15 favorites]

You should check out "Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945" by Deborah Lipstadt. The title is a big hint to its premise: the majority of the contemporary mainstream press of the 1930's and 1940's simply didn't believe the Holocaust was real, or that the Racial Laws, ghettoes, deportations, and/or camps were anything at all like the scale they were actually on. So with a handful of exceptions (I think I rememeber she mentioned a St. Louis paper favorably a lot), it just wasn't reported, not really. And therefore most people really weren't that aware of what was happening. I mean, something that big would have been in the newspapers, right? Only, it mostly wasn't.

Lipstadt makes the point over and over, particularly in regards to the New York Times' (non-)coverage, that when one looks at microfilms of pre-1945 newspapers, one learns much more about the Holocaust from the full-page ads that were constantly being taken out in the papers by American Jewish organizations, than from the newspapers' reporting! The ads would reference fundraisers at Madison Sqaure Garden and at local synagogues across the country to get money for rescue groups overseas. Whereas the anecdotal stories of the exterminations in the camps and the (far-too-low) numbers of dead quoted by stateside "official" Jewish groups were often believed by editors to be exaggerations made for political effect -- right up until liberation! -- and so were not widely mentioned in the reporting.

Also, about the "Casablanca" reference above -- note that almost all the supporting characters in that movie are meant to be "read" as Jewish, from the Bulgarian girl to the local anti-Nazi ex-pat Germans. [see also] And although Ilsa's love Victor Laszlo's religion is not mentioned, he has broken out of a concentration camp, although he was supposedly interned for his political activities -- which was rarer than being interned for one's religion. Also, the supporting cast was stuffed full of real Nazi refugees, many Jewish. "Casablanca" came out in 1942.

As for my own family, my Bronx-born paternal grandfather's Bar Mitzvah speech of circa 1943, of which I have a copy, makes oblique reference to it, but pretty much only in the context of a big horrible war, and not targeted extermination per se. But most Jewish-American families definitely knew something was up, even if they lacked the ability to connect the dots and see the bigger, more coordinated picture.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:25 PM on February 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

makes oblique reference to it -- "it" being the Holocaust, not "Casablanca"!
posted by Asparagirl at 8:26 PM on February 20, 2007

Addendum: I meant to mention that the extermination camps I listed were all in Poland. This was mostly because that's where the Jewish people were--mostly in Eastern Europe--and also because the locations were more remote and easier to hide. Four of the six main death camps were in territory controlled by the Government General that ruled occupied Poland.

Poland's Jewish population dropped from over 3,000,000 in 1933 to about 45,000 in 1950. "In 1933, 60 percent of all Jews lived in Europe. In 1950, most Jews (51 percent) lived in the Americas (North and South combined), while only a third of the world's Jewish population lived in Europe."

As the war went on, the distinction between the concentration camps and the extermination camps narrowed until it was mostly a matter of scale. The concentration camps also had gas chambers and ovens.

Jan Karski a Polish resistance fighter, made a secret mission to London in late summer of 1942 and told the Polish, British and U.S. governments about the German atrocities in Poland, including an eyewitness account of a trip to one of the camps. He met with FDR in July 28, 1943.

The U.S. Army Air Force and R.A.F. began taking reconnaissance photos of the camps in April 1944 (this photo shows smoke coming from a crematorium), which prompted debate over the Allies not bombing the camps.

Joy Page, who played the Bulgarian girl in Casablanca, was Jack Warner's stepdaughter. Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Ms. Page were the only American-born people in the cast.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:25 AM on February 21, 2007

Hitler was Time's Man of the Year in 1938. "Putting political enemies and Jewish, Communist and Socialist jobholders in concentration camps" was cited as one of his four solutions to unemployment.
Germany's 700,000 Jews have been tortured physically, robbed of homes and properties, denied a chance to earn a living, chased off the streets.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:18 PM on February 21, 2007

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