Remembering Kenneth Libo

Historian documented how the 'New York Times' and the secular press in the US in general downplayed the Holocaust.

April 28, 2012 22:36
3 minute read.
Holocuast memorial flame

Holocuast memorial flame 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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The New York Times devoted a good deal of space to the death of historian Kenneth Libo. But what the Times did not mention in its April 5 obituary for Libo was an accomplishment involving the Times: documenting how the Times and the secular press in the US in general downplayed the Holocaust.

This, Libo showed, was in contrast to the Jewish press which prominently and in detail presented some of the same information about the Holocaust.

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Libo did this as curator of historical exhibits at the National Museum of American Jewish History in 1987 in Philadelphia. He did the research for and assembled an exhibit titled “A People in Print: Jewish Journalism in America.” A major focus: how the Jewish press emphasized the Holocaust, “reported it on the front page.”

But for the US secular press, explained Libo, “the New York Times set the standard by putting this news not on the front page but on the back page.”

Documenting the Times’ behavior, a wall at the exhibit contained enlarged photocopies of articles from the Times about the Holocaust –the most terrible stories, but given short shrift, relegated to back pages.

Alongside these were enlarged photocopies from the Jewish press, especially The Forward, about the same things, but well displayed and extensively reported.

“The horror,” Libo told me, “is to find a one-column headline on Page 16 of the Times saying, ‘One Million Jews Killed.’” The exhibit was brought to the Jewish Museum in New York a year later, but this time the photocopied articles from the Times which showed so effectively in Philadelphia how the Times did not give proper attention to the horrific events that occurred in Europe were eliminated. The Jewish Museum, said Libo, advised him that its policy was to only exhibit originals of newspaper articles.

Still, at the Jewish Museum, there was a narrative posted on the wall which spoke of how “the Anglo-Jewish press, fearful of having the war effort perceived as a Jewish issue, did not play as important a role as it could have in informing the public” of the Holocaust. “Setting the tone for coverage in the general press,” it continued, “the New York Times downplayed reports of the planned destruction of Eastern European Jewry.”

Libo’s work on the New York Times and the Holocaust was paralleled by Deborah Lipstadt, now professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, in her book Beyond Belief, the American Press and the coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945.

In it, she wrote: “Had the Times reacted with less equanimity [to news of the Holocaust], it is possible that other American papers would have followed suit.”

The New York Times obituary for Libo, who died March 29 in New York City from complications of an infection, stressed how “working for Irving Howe in the 1960s and ’70s, [he] unearthed historical documentation that informed and shaped World of Our Fathers, Mr. Howe’s landmark 1976 history of the East European Jewish migration to America.”

It said, “Scholars familiar with his archival work credit Mr. Libo with adding a level of emotional detail, and a view of everyday life in the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, that the book might have lacked without his six years of work.”

It also noted that he “lectured widely, taught literature and history at Hunter College, and received a PhD in English literature from the City University of New York.”

The writer is professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and a board member of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the New York-based media watch group.

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