Arno Herzberg: A High-Stakes Gatekeeper

By Laura Howells

Arno Herzberg walked a thin line. As manager of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Berlin bureau during the pre-war years, Herzberg constantly struggled with both the restraints of Nazi censorship and his desire to publish material that would maintain the morale of the Jewish people. This editorial task was “no matter to trifle with” he wrote in his memoir, and said it weighed heavily on all Jewish editors.

As the German press became a uniform dispenser of Nazi propaganda, German Jews turned to Jewish newspapers as their informational lifeline, with many papers doubling and tripling their circulation. As a trusted international news service, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was a key source for many of these Jewish papers. But German news sources faced intense and often unpredictable censorship by Nazi authorities. There were many things newspapers could not publish, lest they be shut down. “Atrocity stories” and government criticism were off limits, as was reporting on any resistance to the Nazi government — at home or abroad.

In his memoir, Herzberg said it was often hard to predict what the Nazis might find objectionable. For instance, it wasn’t explicitly stated, but Jewish papers could not publish photographs of German officials at Jewish events. They also could not report on the Jewish holiday of Purim (which commemorates the unsuccessful attempt to annihilate the Jews of Persia) because Nazi authorities thought readers might see history repeating itself. Even death notices were censored; if a Jewish person died “suddenly and unexpectedly,” that might imply he died in a concentration camp, contradicting the official narrative that concentration camps did not exist.

Herzberg had to use his judgement and carefully consider every article before publication, weighing its news value against the possibility of repercussions. After all, if a paper got suspended, the paper would face a hefty financial burden and the Jewish people would be cut off from yet another source of trustworthy information.

Nazi censorship usually happened after, not before, publication. Newspaper editors would have to take full responsibility for everything its paper printed, and once they published an article all they could do was wait. However, there were a few times Nazi authorities contacted Herzberg in advance, warning that they “did not like” certain stories. Herzberg describes immediately contacting other Jewish editors and telling them to withhold those stories — the consequences would be too harsh.

Herzberg would also engage in self-censorship in an effort to do what he thought was best for the Jewish people. For instance, in 1937, Herzberg wrote a series of articles about Jewish leaders and organizations around the world, hoping the series would provide useful information to emigrating Jews. However, when Adolf Eichmann expressed interest in the series, Herzberg immediately stopped writing — he worried his articles might help the Nazis seize Jewish leaders and organizations in other countries. In particular, Herzberg suppressed a number of stories that dealt with emigration; he would not publish any news that might result in a stampede of visa applications and subsequently shut down escape routes.

Although he had to constantly think about the threat of censorship, Herzberg was also deeply concerned with keeping up the morale and “mental stability” of his people, calling this a “decisive factor” in his editorial decision-making process.

Herzberg would often publish stories about Jewish achievements, or about Jewish developments in other countries. He wanted the Jewish people to have a sense of hope, which would counteract the constant stream of propaganda that decried them as inferior.

“If we published too many shocking stories, it might depress all those who hoped that a kind of normalcy would prevail in the end. At the same time, it could augment the feeling of being trapped, and could induce many to flee the vice that was closing around them,” he wrote.

“Whatever we did, events might prove us wrong. Whatever we did not do might turn out to be an omission that could harm our people. This was a predicament no one could solve and no one could escape from.”

Herzberg managed the JTA’s Berlin bureau from 1934 to 1937, before the Gestapo shut it down. He escaped to the United States in 1938, but never returned to journalism, instead becoming a self-employed accountant.

 

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