THIS WEEK marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. When news eventually came to America of what the Red Army found at that death camp in January 1945, the report was remarkably detailed.
The headline of a first New York Times story about Auschwitz, filed from Moscow on May 8, 1945, read, "Oswiecim Killings Placed at 4,000,000." This number overstated by a factor of two the total of those murdered at Auschwitz, yet the account seemed closely observed in most other respects. The remains of the victims were described -- the charnel pits and piles of ashes, the corpses. The mechanized death process was explained, with a careful description of the gas chambers, down, even, to the name of the manufacturer of the crematoria -- Topf and Son. The identities of the victims were given as "more than 4,000,000 citizens" of a list of European nations -- Poland, Hungary, Netherlands, France. But what is most remarkable about the Times story -- apart from the fact that it was buried on page 12 -- is that in defining the identities of those victims, the story never used the word "Jew."
Many non-Jewish Poles were murdered at Auschwitz, but the vast majority of the dead were Jews -- killed for being Jewish. Indeed, of all the death camps, Auschwitz was most expressly commissioned to murder of Jews. Yet the New York Times reporter apparently saw nothing untoward in passing along a Soviet report that made no mention of Jews at Auschwitz. The murdered were Dutch, or French. They were men, women and children. They were old. They were Italian. Nothing about their being Jewish, which for the Nazis was the only thing that counted. The Times reporter was C. L. Sulzberger.
My attention was drawn to this story by a study of Holocaust news coverage I conducted at the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. I discovered that after World War II the broader world was shockingly slow in acknowledging the most distinctive feature of the Nazi death-camp system -- that, whoever its other victims were, it was created expressly to eliminate the Jewish people.
Yet in the war's immediate aftermath, little attention was drawn to the fate of the millions of Jews who died in those camps. The desperate people released from those hell holes after liberation, like those who had already been murdered, were routinely referred to in governmental and journalistic reports as "resisters," "prisoners," "interned civilians," "displaced persons," and so on.
The New York Times index did not cite stories about concentration camps under the category "Jews" until 1950. It was not until 1975 that the index category "Nazi Policies Toward Jews" appeared.
Western culture came very slowly -- and reluctantly -- to a full reckoning with what the Nazis set out to do in the heart of Europe. The work of writers (Elie Wiesel, of course, but also the likes of Primo Levi and Cynthia Ozick); teaching by educators (for example, Facing History and Ourselves); the demands of heirs (challenges to Swiss banks and art museums); the movement to establish Holocaust museums and memorials; the recognitions tied to anniversaries, especially as witnessing survivors aged and began to die -- all of this has helped to lay bare what makes the Nazi crime against the Jews a matter of acute moral concern for the civilization out of which it grew.
The Master Race ideology depended on contempt for various racial and ethnic groups, including Slavs to the east of Germany and Mediterranean peoples to the south. But Hitler's anti-Jewish agenda was unlike the impulses behind his other crimes, or other horrors of history. To insist on this is not to engage in the competition of victim groups, or the pointless setting of genocides against each other, as if Polish, Armenian, or Cambodian suffering weighs less than Jewish suffering.
What gives the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz its special gravity is that this crime, while committed by Nazis -- and the particular guilt of the perpetrators must always be insisted upon -- could not have occurred but for the religiously and culturally justified anti-Semitism that both spawned the crime and then enabled it nearly to succeed. Therefore, the word "Auschwitz" stands now not merely as a marker of the evil that gripped Germany for a time, but also as an ongoing challenge to the conscience of the broader culture whose, yes, complicity was hinted at in the way it at first deflected the most important thing about the horror that had unfolded there.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.