“I Cover the Horror Front”

“I Cover the Horror Front” (ca. 1944)
by Bruce Russell (1903-1963)
14 x 20 in., ink and wash on posterboard
Coppola Collection

I would love to get a real date on this one, but I’ll bet I am close.

Bruce Russell was a longtime cartoonist for the LA Times. He began at the Times in the early 1930s, starting off with sports cartoons, but in 1934 he became the newspaper’s lead political cartoonist, and held that post until his death in 1963. Russell won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1946, for his cartoon titled “Time to Bridge that Gulch.”

But Russell’s most powerful works were his WWII cartoons. He had a biting edge to his work, unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. Case in point: this cartoon.

You can see that Russell titled the piece, “I Cover the Horror Front”, which is likely a take on a 1933 song, “I Cover the Waterfront” (more about that in a moment).

Syracuse University holds an archive of Russell’s work, as does UCLA. I’ll learn more, one day. There is also a recent book (2015: Cartoonists against the Holocaust, by Medoff & Yoe) that lists Russell and two of his 1938 works. As shown in this book, the references to persecution go right back to the rise of Hitler’s influence in 1933, while specific visual references to the concentration camps themselves are more rare, coming after the reports from the Allies. This is perhaps the most powerful one that I’ve seen.

There are three clues in the image, I think. (1) it was drawn while the war was still on because the Nazis were still flying the flag, (2) a sense of the actual make-up of the camps was known because of the smokestack, so first-hand reports were available, and (3) the title, if in reference to that song, would have needed to be current.

In June 1944, detailed reports (Vrba–Wetzler Report), as written by escapees, were being circulated. The Swiss-Hungarian Students’ League made around 50 mimeographed copies of the Vrba–Wetzler and other Auschwitz reports, which by June 23 had been distributed to the Swiss government and Jewish groups. The students went on to make thousands of other copies, which were passed to other students and the newspapers. As a result of the Swiss press coverage, details appeared in the New York Times on June 4, the BBC World Service on June 15, and the New York Times again on June 20, which carried a 22-line story that 7,000 Jews had been “dragged to gas chambers in the notorious German concentration camps at Birkenau and Auschwitz.”

On July 24, 1944, the Majdanek Concentration Camp became the first concentration camp to be liberated by Soviet troops (and the first to be liberated overall). On Aug 21,1944 Time Magazine published a story titled POLAND: VernichtungslagerLast week the Russian press published the first eye-witness description of a Nazi extermination camp. Wrote Soviet War Correspondent Roman Karmen:  “In the course of all my travels into liberated territory I have never seen a more abominable sight than Maiden, near Lublin, Hitler’s notorious Vernichtungslager [extermination camp] where more than half a million European men, women and children were massacred. . . .* This was not a concentration camp; it was a gigantic murder plant.  “Save for 1,000 living corpses the Red Army found when it entered, no inmate escaped alive.

News about the extermination program was out there, earlier, and studies continue to this day by those researching who knew what, and when, and what actions resulted (or did not).

Throughout the war few Americans were aware of the scale of the European Jewish catastrophe. But by late 1944, three quarters of the American population believed that the Germans had “murdered many people in concentration camps,” but of those willing to estimate how many had been killed, most thought it was 100,000 or fewer. By May 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, most people guessed that about a million (including, it should be noted, both Jews and non-Jews) had been killed in the camps.

The song “I Cover the Waterfront” was inspired by Max Miller’s 1932 best-selling novel of the same name. The book was adapted into a 1933 movie (starring Claudette Colbert). The song had become so instantly popular that the movie was re-scored to include it. Lots of jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, covered the song. Dating from 1913, the phrase “to cover the waterfront” was a common idiom in the 1930s, meaning “to be thorough and comprehensive in what is presented or dealt with.”

At the height of her popularity, Billie Holiday recorded the song and helped to re-popularize it. She recorded it for the Columbia label on August 7, 1941, and then again, multiple times, on March 25, 1944, by which time it was played frequently during her shows.

I am selecting August 1944 as a reasonable time for this cartoon. We have the first-hand reports of camps coming out in July, stories running in August, and five months since Billie Holiday made multiple recordings of a popular song.


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