To date, the most hazardous on-the-job moment I’ve faced at JTA was a flooded hotel room toilet in 2009.
You can appreciate, then, how humbling it was for me to dig up these stories about JTA correspondents who survived landmine explosions, detainment in concentration camps and being held prisoner by Hitler.
Coinciding with the Winter X Games — and a week before JTA’s 95th anniversary — The Archive Blog presents the top ten extreme moments in JTA news reporting:
10. Pepsi CEO shoves Washington bureau chief (1975)
JTA’s Washington bureau chiefs frequently deal with big machers. In 1975, Joe Polakoff took the ‘Pepsi challenge’ when he pressed president and CEO Donald Kendall about Soviet Jewry.
Calling on current Washington bureau chief and Capital J blogger, Ron Kampeas, to share a crazier story from his beat…
9. Van Paasen shot at in Palestine (1929)
Keep arms and legs inside vehicle at all times. This advice was especially important for JTA correspondents in pre-1948 Palestine, whose cars were moving targets for Arab stone-throwers. But in 1929 JTA correspondent Pierre Van Paasen found his vehicle fired upon — twice in the same trip.
8. Elie Kohen attacked in front of Israeli Embassy in Denmark (1973)
Outnumbered 10-to-1 in a fight, JTA’s Copenhagen correspondent “was attacked by several Palestinian left-wing demonstrators” in front of the Israeli Embassy. Despite police not coming to his aid, Kohen walked away “slightly injured” but without his camera, which was stolen in the melee.
7. JTA correspondent reports horrific aftermath of Algeria riots (1934)
Dodging death and violence makes for good “top ten” material. But the trauma of war, murder and anti-Jewish violence — even after the fact — is no doubt a painful undertaking for a journalist to bear. Filed by an unnamed JTA reporter in Constantine, Algeria: “The only comparison I can think of is the Palestine riots of 1929. I found Jewish girls with their breasts cut off, greybearded Jews stabbed to death, little Jewish children dead of numerous knife wounds and whole families locked in their homes and burned to death by the rioters.”
6. Berlin bureau ransacked by Nazis (1933)
Under Nazi rule, JTA staffers stuck out their necks out to cover the unfolding story in Europe. Not surprisingly, the Reich didn’t particularly care for their reportage. The 1933 closure of JTA Berlin office and seizure of equipment was but one of in a series of Nazi-instigated disruptions that would follow. Otto Schick was detained in 1933, Boris Smolar –whom Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels ominously knew by name — was held by the Gestapo in 1936, and the Paris bureau was ransacked in 1940. The late Daniel Schorr and Jon Kayston recalled this story: “It wasn’t all free concerts: Schorr volunteered for Bund duty, covering the pro-Nazi societies that flourished in that period among German Americans. John Kayston, a JTA staffer at that time, recalled Schorr’s resourcefulness in a 1997 interview marking JTA’s 80th anniversary. Kayston joined Schorr as an interpreter at one of the Bund events. “The storm troopers at the door asked for our press ID, and refused us entry when they saw we were from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency,” Kayston recalled. “We went to another entrance, and when showing our ID, we covered the word ‘Jewish’ with our thumb.” They got in.
5. Jerusalem office bombed (1948)
On Feb. 1, 1948, the building housing the JTA and the Palestine Post offices was rocked by a car bomb in one of two major attacks that day; many were injured (including Jerusalem bureau chief Mordechai Anshel Tenenblatt), one person died at the scene, and two later succumbed to injury. The Haganah alleged that the attack was perpetrated by British policemen, a claim that was later denied by British officials. The following day, the Palestine Post wrote, “The PALESTINE POST appears today in smaller format. But it appears.”
4. Pierre van Paasen detained for 9 days in Nazi concentration camp (1934)
Van Paasen makes a second appearance on the list for this chilling tale. While, the details were hazy, the Jewish Daily Bulletin saw fit to print van Paasen’s account of being detained in a Nazi concentration camp for nine days.
“Nine days of Hell.” That’s the way Mr. Van Paassen put it in an interview. Nine days of getting up at five o’clock, nine days of being drilled by brutal [brownshirts], nine days of castor oil, beatings, and indignities of all sorts, he said. Not only that, but nine days of Nazi refusal to allow their prisoner, a British subject, to get in touch with the consulate, which was, for four of the nine days. within a few blocks of his prison.
3. JTA reporter survives Syrian landmine (1963)
A JTA reporter was part of a team of news reporters covering the recent shooting deaths of two Israeli farm youths near the Syrian border. Suddenly, a passing truck filled with fertilizer rolled over a landmine, which had initially been intended to perpetrate the very attack that the group was reporting. (The shooting was a backup plan employed by the Syrian attackers when the tractor driven by the Israeli youths had failed to trigger the device). Miraculously for the reporters, “splinters of rock flew all around the group, but no one was hurt.”
2. Mendel Mozes, JTA Warsaw bureau staff escape to Wilno (1939)
This Editor’s note printed Oct. 31, 1939 aptly describes Mozes’ heroism (links added by The Archive Blog): “FOLLOWING IS THE FIRST AUTHENTIC, COMPREHENSIVE ACCOUNT OF THE FATE THAT HAS OVERWHELMED MORE THAN 1,500,000 JEWS IN THE NAZI-HELD AREAS OF POLAND. THE WRITER, MENDEL MOZES, WAS FOR MANY YEARS CHIEF OF THE WARSAW BUREAU OF THE J.T.A. HE REMAINED IN WARSAW DURING THE FIRST FIVE DAYS OF THE WAR, THEN EVACUATED HIS STAFF AND FAMILY TO KRZEMIENIEC, SOUTHEASTERN TOWN WHICH WAS THE TEMPORARY SEAT OF THE FLEEING POLISH GOVERNMENT. AFTER SEVEN WEEKS OF WANDERING, DURING WHICH THEY WERE UNHEARD FROM, THE GROUP, THREE OF THEM SERIOUSLY ILL FROM EXPOSURE AND LACK OF FOOD, ARRIVED IN WILNO. THE J.T.A. OFFICE IN WARSAW AND HIS HOME, MR. MOZES REPORTED, WERE BOMBED AND BURNED TO THE GROUND IN THE FIRST DAYS OF THE WAR.”
1. JTA investigator held prisoner by Hitler at Beer Hall Putsch (1923)
While on special assignment for JTA, Jerusalem-born Polish journalist Dr. Matatyahu Hindes found himself detained by Hitler during the famous Beer Hall Putsch, the night Hitler attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic in 1923.
Hitler then invited the newspapermen to the platform. When the second in command cried out his discovery that the “pressmen were all Jews,” one of the Fascisti thrust a rifle at Dr. Hindes’ breast until approached by Hitler. Hindes was chosen by his two colleagues as the spokesmen and he demanded to be released. “We waited five years, surely the pressmen may also wait,” was Hitler’s reply.