News service launches electronic archives
250,000 articles tell Jewish story of 20th century
Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna points out major news stories first reported on by JTA since World War I.
May 11, 2011
NEW YORK — The news service that has provided most of the national and international coverage for Jewish publications and agencies in the United States and abroad for the better part of a century will offer its historical news archives on-line.
The plan to open JTA’s digital archives, containing some 250,000 articles dating back to 1923, was announced on May 3 at a ceremony held at a fitting location, the Center for Jewish History in New York. The site can be accessed at archive.jta.org.
“This archive is a testament to journalists dedicated to chronicling the story of the Jewish people through triumph and travail throughout the world, journalists dedicated to the idea that there is a narrative connecting Jews in the United States to Jews in Israel and throughout the world — whether rich or poor, oppressed or thriving, religious or secular, hawkish or dovish,” said Ami Eden, JTA’s editor-in-chief.
The service was founded as the Jewish Correspondents Bureau in February 1917 in The Hague by Jacob Landau, a 25-year-old Viennese journalist.
In 1920, the news agency relocated to London and changed its name to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, then, a year later, moved to New York. Within a few years it began servicing newspapers in Europe, South Africa, and Australia as well as North America. In 1987, the JTA established its website.
At the May 3 event, Eden said it was important to make the archives accessible electronically. “If the JTA stories were not digitized they would be lost forever,” he said.
The inherent value of the cache of material to those interested in the chronicle of modern world Jewry was underscored by leading Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, who said that “news looks different when viewed through Jewish eyes.” “There are a lot of things in JTA that were not in The New York Times,” he said. “For Jews interested in understanding the Jewish 20th century, we have not until now had anything on the web they could use for free....”
Sarna, professor of American-Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, cited a period when JTA reporters broke one significant story after another.
“Many young Jews believe the American-Jewish community paid no attention to Adolf Hitler until it was too late. That is a common trope,” Sarna said. However, he noted there are 124 archived reports about Hitler filed by JTA reporters before 1930. The earliest, from Jan. 30, 1923, is headlined “Hitler threatens Jews, Americans, and English.”
“At a time when most people weren’t paying attention to Hitler, JTA was watching him,” said Sarna, “and the Jews who followed JTA understood what it meant when Hitler became a chancellor of Germany.”
JTA’s story of Oct. 16, 1941, was the first mention “anywhere that we know of” of the massacre in Babi Yar, where German troops murdered some 52,000 Jews in Ukraine, said Sarna. “While The New York Times considered it unconfirmed and didn’t report it, JTA stuck with the story,” he said.
Using secret sources, JTA also provided coverage of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising “in much greater detail than was elsewhere available,” said Sarna. Many people refused to give credence to JTA articles believing they from were biased Jewish sources; in fact, he said, many countries banned JTA reporters.
To circumvent the ban, many of the reporters worked through a JTA offshoot called the Overseas News Agency, which had “secret correspondents all over,” according to Sarna. Among them was Willy Brandt, who served as mayor of West Berlin from 1957-1966 and, from 1969 to 1974, as chancellor of West Germany. Also reporting for ONA were CBS News correspondents Daniel Schorr and David Schoenbrun, NBC News reporter Elie Abel, and novelist Meyer Levin.
“When reports began to trickle out of the Soviet Union, JTA once again had reporters and secret correspondents” to cover Stalinist anti-Semitism, Sarna said.
On the domestic front, its 232 articles tracking the activities of the Ku Klux Klan made JTA “by far the most important resource on the KKK and the American-Jewish community.”
Another story that remained largely uncovered outside JTA’s articles was about young African-Americans who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 wearing yarmulkes “to link themselves with Jews who had joined in the march. This is a kind of forgotten moment of the civil rights movement preserved by the JTA,” said Sarna.
“Whether your interest is in American-Jewish history or anti-Semitism or the Holocaust or Israel — or even the story of Jews and dolphins in Tel Aviv — the JTA archive has something for you,” said Sarna. “Students of all ages will be using the archive for many years to come.”
According to JTA marketing director David Billotti, readers will be allowed to post their own letters and photographs at the site “so that people can upload their own memorabilia with stories about what it was like for their grandmothers or their aunts. People will be able to own the archive in a very personal way,” he said.
Robert Steinbaum, publisher of New Jersey Law Journal and a board member of both JTA and NJ Jewish News, lauded the JTA plan, saying that now, “anyone in their own community can research local history that may involve people or families or institutions they know.”
Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest NJ, told NJJN, “I can’t think of a resource more useful when it comes to Jewish history. I am starting to think of how to promote it, especially to high school and college students who come our way…. Because it is on-line and there is not that struggle with microfilm and it’s got the keyword search, it meets a younger person’s viewpoint on how you find history.”