I met the late Abe Rosenthal once and spent a couple of hours with him, long enough to experience his famous temper. He had alot of rage inside him, which the fly-by psych in me would pinpoint to a tortuous childhood, including his near-crippling illness and the deaths of his father and four sisters, as though a plague had hit his family.
That rage made Rosenthal an electrifying writer, early on, and it animated one of his achievements as a journalist that yesterday’s Times obit didn’t highlight—the exploration of the Holocaust.
Former Timesman Ari Goldman wrote last year that “There Is No News From Auschwitz,” Rosenthal’s 1958 magazine piece from the death camp, was one of the key texts in American Jewish life. A revolutionary piece of journalism, Goldman says. At the time American culture was still in denial of the Holocaust. Rosenthal’s personal piece came out the same year as Leon Uris’s Exodus, but before the Eichmann trial and before Elie Wiesel’s Night. Rosenthal later told Goldman he didn’t think the Times would run his piece. For it was written with a personal moral agitation that was also elegant and inarguable.
Anger over the Holocaust played an important role in Rosenthal’s career. In 1964, when he had become city editor, he learned at lunch with the police commissioner about the sidewalk stabbing death of Kitty Genovese in Queens, as people in the apartment house on Austin Street ignored her cries. Rosenthal jumped on the story. Though other Timesmen reported it, Rosenthal wrote a book on the case, called Thirty-Eight Witnesses. Read that book today and it doesn’t feel like journalism. It is rather vague about all the witnesses. There is little hard fact in the case; as the Wikipedia entry shows, the case was mythologized. (Note Charles Kaiser’s questions about it, too, in the Observer.) But the Genovese case was itself a Holocaust drama: it was further proof for Rosenthal that a moral horror could occur without anyone lifting a finger. (One of the ironies of the case was that many people in the apartment house were Jews, including my grandparents).
In years to come, after he left the newspaper’s executive editorship, Rosenthal’s rage would include the Times itself, for failing to cover the Holocaust. Here are his comments about the Times coverage for a documentary prepared by the Newseum