By Laurel Leff
At no time in history were JTA correspondents more needed than during the 12 long years of the Hitler regime. The JTA reported on the persecution and then the annihilation of Europe’s Jews, often providing the first, and sometimes the only, reports on the unfolding Holocaust. And at no time did its correspondents face more peril to their livelihood and lives.
As soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, problems began for the agency. It was, after all, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a country that was determined to deprive all Jews of their rights. The agency faced the Nazi regime’s physical attacks on its operations and rhetorical attacks on its journalistic integrity. “Much of the JTA’s superb reporting from Germany … was labeled Jewish anti-Nazi propaganda,” JTA’s founder and editor, Jacob Landau, explained years later in a report to the JTA board.The German government was not the agency’s only problem. “About 1933 …a resistance began to develop in the world press to acceptance of news involving Jews and others from what was considered a partisan (Jewish) source,” Landau wrote. The New York Times dropped the service in 1937 despite repeated entreaties from JTA editors. The Associated Press followed suit. So many non-Jewish newspapers canceled that the agency felt compelled to form the Overseas News Agency so it could report from Europe under a non-Jewish moniker. Still, JTA maintained its mission of serving as “the eyes and ears of world Jewry.” To the rest of the press, the destruction of Europe’s Jews was a secondary story, buried deep within newspapers. To the JTA, the extermination campaign was the story. As Germany marched into Austria and then into Czechoslovakia and other European countries, JTA correspondents chronicled the ensuing anti-Semitic legislation, property confiscations, sporadic violence, work formations, round-ups, and deportations.
The JTA reported first the mass expulsion of Jews from Vienna and the vicious pogroms in Romania. When World War II began in September 1939, conditions for the Jews and for the JTA grew far worse. The agency had about a dozen correspondents on the continent, most of them were Jewish, and many of them stayed as the German tanks rolled in. Mendel Mozes, the JTA’s Warsaw bureau chief, remained in the city during the German bombardment, focusing on reports that Jewish sites had been targeted. Mozes ultimately made his way to Vilna where he lived under Soviet occupation before escaping to Japan and then to the United States.
The JTA’s Paris editor, Abraham Herenroth, also stayed in Europe during the war’s first two years, reporting from Vichy on the collaborationist government’s treatment of Jews. (Examples can be found here, here, here and here.) As a stateless Jew, Herenroth lived under constant danger. He left for the United States in 1941.
When the JTA, along with the rest of the Western press, could no longer report from inside occupied Europe, it moved to outposts in neutral countries to take on the increasingly horrific task of tallying European Jewry’s demise. Through contacts with diplomats, underground movements, governments-in-exile and massacre survivors, the JTA managed to produce timely, detailed and accurate accounts on topics from the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto (examples can be found here, here, here and here) to Jewish generals fighting with the Russians.
A February 1942 report acknowledged both the importance and difficulty of the JTA’s job: “…the JTA is the principal source of information about the Jewish communities isolated from the rest of the world by the Nazi regime. The JTA remains the only link between these communities and the Jews in the democratic countries.”
The JTA’s most important contribution was in reporting the fate of the Jews in eastern Poland and the Soviet Union after Germany broke the Nazi-Soviet pact and invaded in June 1941. The JTA was one of the only news organizations to report consistently on the massacres of more than a million people. In November 1941, for example, it provided the first report of what has come to be known as the Babi Yar massacre in which 52,000 Kiev Jews were machine-gunned.
The JTA ended its coverage of the war the way it had started it — following behind conquering armies. But this time, it was the Allied armies moving into liberated territories and JTA correspondents finding, not an imperiled community, but a devastated one. When the JTA’s Moscow correspondent reached Lublin in 1944, he discovered just 1,000 survivors out of pre-war Jewish population of 42,000. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency dutifully transmitted the list of the survivors’ names.
Laurel Leff is the author of “Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge University Press, 2005).