"Liberated by the Yanks": The Holocaust as an American Story in Postwar News Articles

By Leff, Laurel | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"Liberated by the Yanks": The Holocaust as an American Story in Postwar News Articles


Leff, Laurel, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


During World War II, The Washington Post was essentially a local newspaper whose hometown just happened to be the nation's capital. Like most American newspapers, it did not send many reporters abroad, relying primarily on the wire services to keep its readers abreast of the war's progress. It ran front-page stories on local boys who died or were wounded in the fighting. Its inside pages, which rarely extended beyond the tenth page, published long lists of those on their way to war and not-as-long lists of those on their way home.

The Post's local, even parochial, focus continued during the European war's last two months as American soldiers dashing toward Berlin stumbled across Germany's extensive system of slave labor and concentration camps. To the Post, the story was clear. Americans were not just soon-to-be victorious soldiers, but they were also liberators, freeing the continent's enslaved peoples. "Yanks Free 300 Women Jailed by Nazis," proclaimed one headline. (1) "Infamous Dachau Prison Falls to Yanks; 32,000 Liberated," enthused another. (2) The newspaper got so carried away that it even slapped a "Liberated by Yanks" headline onto a story about a Hungarian politician's accusation that the Germans had killed 5,000,000 Jews in Auschwitz. (3) The Russians had reached the abandoned extermination center three months earlier.

That headline, though a mistake, reflected a mindset that pervaded the American press's coverage of the end of the war and its immediate aftermath. Americans were at the heart of almost every story whether it made sense for them to be there--as in recounting the final battlefield victories over Japan and the dropping of atomic bombs--or whether it did not. Although this tendency is understandable--they were, after all, American news organizations reporting for an American audience--it had an unexpected consequence. News articles published from April through December, 1945, obscured, and at times distorted, one of the twentieth century's defining events--the destruction of the Jews of Europe. (4)

The tendency of the press to perceive events through an American prism helped to perpetuate a pattern established during the war of treating "the systematic murder of millions of Jews as though it were minor news." (5) Stories that were exclusively about what had happened to European Jews during the preceding six years continued to appear inside the paper and to consist of a paragraph or two. No more than a handful of such stories appeared on the front page of all three newspapers, and only one front-page story dealt with the 6,000,000 Jews who had been murdered. In addition, imposing an American framework on two crucial events that seemingly were about European Jewry's destruction and in retrospect are often presented that way--the liberation of German concentration camps and the trials of German war criminals--transformed them into stories in which the Holocaust played almost no part. The news media did highlight two ongoing, interrelated stories involving Jews: the fate of survivors in displaced persons camps in Germany, and the struggle for a Jewish State in Palestine. In these stories, the press did not deny the central role of Jews, as a result of a concerted public relations effort by Jewish organizations, but it did deny the central role of the Holocaust. The three newspapers published more than a hundred articles on Jewish displaced persons and the fight over Palestine, including dozens that appeared on the front page, but almost none of these stories explained how the Jews came to be displaced or why they wanted so desperately to emigrate to Palestine. Finally, a major reason European Jews' perspective did not emerge is that their voices were rarely heard. Jewish survivors were almost never quoted, not as they emerged from the ashes of the liberated concentration camps, not as they languished in overcrowded, unsanitary displaced persons camps, and not as they arrived in Palestine to try to make a new life. …

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