Boris Smolar, the former Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency whose coverage of world Jewry for more than 60 years set a standard of excellence in Jewish journalism, died at Roosevelt Hospital here last Friday after a long illness. He was 88 years old.
Smolar was predeceased by his wife of 50 years, Genia Smolar, a former executive in the pre-war Jewish community of Berlin, who also died last Friday at Roosevelt Hospital, just 15 hours before her husband’s death, according to Smolar’s sister, Millie Hocherman. Funeral services are scheduled for today in Baltimore.
Smolar’s career as a journalist and advocate of Jewish causes placed him amid some of the most crucial and significant events of world Jewry in the 20th century, including the United Nation’s 1947 decision to accept partition of Palestine leading to the creation of a Jewish State.
‘ONE OF THE MOST SACRED MOMENTS OF MY LIFE’
Smolar later wrote of that night in the UN building in Flushing Meadows, New York: "I must confess that this moment has remained one of the most sacred moments of my life. During those historic weeks and months when the creation of a Jewish State was in doubt, every Jewish journalist did whatever he could to aid the Jewish delegation."
Born in 1897 in the Ukrainian village of Rovno, the son of Eliezer Levy and Miriam Smolar, Boris came to the United States in 1919 after serving in the Russian Army in World War I and as a member of the Rovno Relief Committee, helping Jewish refugees fleeing the war zone in Russia.
He graduated from the Haven School in Chicago, went on to study at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, while at the same time working on the editorial staff of the Chicago Jewish Daily Forward until 1924. At this time he joined the JTA.
Smolar became the JTA’s European correspondent, and a roving reporter of the New York World, the paper published by Joseph Pulitzer. His JTA dispatches were widely featured in the general press, and the Anglo-Jewish and Yiddish press. In 1939, he was named Editor-in-Chief of the JTA, a post he held until retiring in 1967.
In 1928, Smolar succeeded in securing permission from the Soviet government to establish a JTA office in Moscow. He became the first JTA correspondent there, accredited by the Soviet Foreign Commissariat, providing a much-needed pipeline of information on the lifestyles and problems facing Soviet Jewry. Only six American correspondents were permitted at that time in the Soviet Union.
His coverage of the Soviet Union provided special insights into areas such as Siberia and Turkestan, both closed to foreigners. He covered Jewish agricultural colonies in Crimea, supported by Agro joint. But in his role as objective reporter and advocate of Jewish concerns, Smolar also made news. In 1928, for example, he intervened with Soviet authorities to get Saadieh Mazeh, son of the late Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Jacob Mazeh, out of jail, and later, along with his wife and family, out of Russia.
In another incident, in 1930, 14 rabbis were arrested in Minsk, only to be released soon thereafter following Smolar’s intervention. Smolar personally met with Commissar for Religious Affairs Peter Smidovich, and it was later decided by the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party, the Yevseksia, that Jewish agricultural workers would be allowed to do their one day of free collective service on a different day other than the scheduled date of Yom Kippur in 1930.
But Smolar took particular pride in his personal intervention regarding the miserable conditions of the "declassed" Jews in Russia who were deprived of their rights under a decree by Stalin. His dispatches on the "declassed" Jews led to intervention from U.S. officials and others, leading to a reversal of the policy order, and the later elimination of the Yevseksia.
Smolar never interviewed Stalin directly during his assignment in Moscow, but in 1931 in response to written questions, he elicited a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism from Stalin, which was published worldwide, but not in the Soviet press until 1936.
In addition, Smolar’s assignments led him to cover the pogroms in Rumania in 1930. His dispatches from the Rumanian capital resulted in the resignation of the notorious anti-Semite, Alexander Voyda-Voivod, as Minister of the Interior. He also reported from Rumania in 1937 when the two extreme anti-Semites, Octavia Goga and Prof. A.Z. Cuza, took over the government, resulting in panic in the Jewish community.
FILED REPORTS FROM GERMANY AND PALESTINE
Smolar then proceeded to Berlin, to cover Germany in 1932. It is widely acknowledged that Smolar was among the first correspondents to predict Hitler’s accession and to warn of the grave menace to the German Jews. Harassed by the Gestapo, and at the risk of his personal safety, Smolar continued to file reports on the impending doom facing German Jewry.
"After numerous attempts to make it difficult for me–in the hopes that I would leave Germany voluntarily–the Gestapo finally decided to deport me, declaring my presence in Berlin as ‘constituting a danger to the Third Reich,’" Smolar wrote of his assignment in Berlin. "No greater compliment could have been paid to the JTA and to me than this action by the Hitler Germany."
Smolar also spent years covering the situation in Palestine, during the pre-State years. He reported on the Arab riots in Palestine in 1929, and knew all the major Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann and Vladimir Jabotinsky. In 1940, Smolar provided an affidavit by which the late Jabotinsky’s son, Eri, and his fiancee were able to leave Nazi-occupied France.
INVOLVED IN NUMEROUS ACTIVITIES
Smolar was the author of numerous books published in Yiddish and Hebrew, and his latest book, "In the Service of My People," an autobiographical outline of his years as a journalist, was published by Hebrew College in Baltimore in 1982. He also authored "Soviet Jewry Today and Tomorrow," published in 1971.
Smolar was the recipient of numerous citations, awards and medals, including the Bronze Peace Medal and the Silver Shekel Medal from the Israeli government. He also was presented with Amoris Alumna Pax Medal by Pope Paul VI in 1965.
He was involved in numerous Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution committee, the American ORT Federation, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. In 1972, the Council of Jewish Federations established in his honor the "Smolar Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism," presented annually to recognize outstanding achievement in Jewish journalism in North America.
Smolar retired from his post as Editor-in-Chief of the JTA in 1967, and was named Editor-in-Chief Emerifus. He continued to write his weekly column, "Between You and Me," syndicated by the JTA, until about a month ago. He also wrote a column for the Jewish Daily Forward.
A LIFE-LONG COMPANION
Smolar’s wife, Genia, who also died last Friday, was his life-long companion and had ac companied him on his numerous travels. He wrote of her in "In the Service of My People": I shall never be able to repay my life-long debt for a life of great joy to my beloved wife, Genia, who stimulated me to write this book and who experienced with me the dangerous years when I was stationed in Nazi Germany and later, the thrilling years in London, Paris and other countries, and the wonderful, exciting years in Israel."
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.