NEW YORK (JTA) — Known today as the massacre at Babi Yar, the killing near Kiev of tens of thousands of Jews by German troops at the end of September 1941 is remembered today as one of the most grisly chapters of the Holocaust in Ukraine.
In the weeks after the slaughter, however, the world did not know.
Historians believe it was a Nov. 16, 1941 dispatch from JTA — published without a byline and with the dateline “Somewhere in Europe” — that broke the news to the West and English-speaking readers.
That first report of the massacre at Babi Yar is one of more than 250,000 JTA articles from 1923 to the present that are now available online as part of JTA’s new digital news archive.
The archive itself marks a historic first: It’s the only collection of English-language reporting covering the Jewish world in the 20th century available online. And it’s free.
Until now, those interested in Jewish reporting over the last century or so had to find libraries that housed the yellowing tearsheets of Jewish news dispatches. A daunting task even for seasoned scholars, the originals themselves often were difficult to decipher either because of their poor condition or because they were in Yiddish. But with the launch of JTA’s archive on May 3, anyone with an Internet connection has access to all of JTA’s original articles.
“There is no American Jewish source with this reach,” says historian Jonathan Sarna, the Brandeis University professor who oversaw the JTA archive project. Sarna is also a JTA board member.
“The archive has the potential to spark an interest in the past that will transform the future.”
Earlier this month, blogger Menachem Butler called the JTA’s archive “a milestone into the history of 20th-century Jewish journalism” that “provides a window into nearly ninety years of Jewish reporting on world affairs.”
Founded in 1917 to be a voice of and for the Jewish people at a time when news of what was happening to the Jews of Europe and Russia was hard to come by, JTA has been a primary source of English-language Jewish news on everything from Hitler’s rise — the first JTA report about Hitler was printed on Jan. 30, 1923 — to the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, the founding of Israel and the long arc of 20th-century American Jewish history.
“This archive is a testament to journalists dedicated to chronicling the story of the Jewish people, through triumph and travail, throughout the world,” said Ami Eden, JTA’s editor in chief and CEO. “It is a testament to journalists devoted to the idea that there is a narrative connecting Jews in the United States, Israel and around the world, whether rich or poor, oppressed or thriving, religious or secular, hawkish or dovish.”
JTA remains a leading source for news of Jewish interest and concern, providing content to about 80 newspapers and publications around the world, including this one. JTA also publishes a daily e-mail news bulletin called the JTA Daily Briefing, and all of the agency’s material is available online at JTA.org.
“For anybody who wants to see how Jewish history has meaning and implications for us today, we need the JTA historical archive,” said Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. “It opens up a whole world of the past.”
In the 1940s, when the Nazi gas chambers were running strong and news of the genocide of the Jews was buried in papers like The New York Times, JTA was transmitting a ceaseless stream of news from the front that painted a detailed picture of the emerging Holocaust. Decades later, historians would turn to these dispatches as evidence that news of what was happening to Europe’s Jews indeed was available in real time — and widely ignored.
“There was and still is a lot of conventional wisdom that Americans didn’t know about the Holocaust while it was happening,” said journalism professor Laurel Leff of Northeastern University. “With this archive, people can go and they can actually look at the bulletins that JTA sent out during this period and see that much of the information was in fact available.”
It was perhaps poetic justice that the painstaking labor of digitizing the files — converting yellowing news clips and fading microfiche slides into digital files by typing them up — was outsourced to young Cambodians, members of a society that is still emerging from the genocidal history of the Khmer Rouge. The work was overseen by Digital Divide Data, a nonprofit organization that provides jobs to disadvantaged youths in Southeast Asia.
The initial planning and digitization was funded by the Gottesman Fund, George S. Blumenthal, the Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund, and Robert Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner in honor of her mother, Norma Spungen. Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and The Charles H. Revson Foundation paid for the development of the actual website, which can be accessed at archive.jta.org.
JTA, a nonprofit organization, is reaching out to other foundations and philanthropists to cover remaining start-up costs and create programs to enhance the archive’s effectiveness as an educational tool for younger users. In addition, JTA hopes reader donations will help cover the ongoing maintenance of the archive.
The archive itself is a stockpile of stories, significant and insignificant, chronicling major milestones and figures in Jewish history, as well as forgotten episodes and personalities.
The archive’s more than 900 articles on the Ku Klux Klan tell the story of the racist group’s anti-Semitism. A 1928 article tells the story of a blood libel in upstate New York. In August 1929, JTA informed U.S. readers of the massacre of Jews in Hebron.
A 1933 dispatch details a Purim parade in Tel Aviv that included some 10,000 Arabs. A 1965 article informs that black marchers in the American South donned yarmulkes as “freedom caps” in deference to the rabbis who marched with them.
Following the recent passing of Elizabeth Taylor, bloggers and reporters around the Internet cited a 1977 dispatch reporting that an Israeli official said the Hollywood starlet offered herself up in exchange for the Israeli hostages being held in Entebbe.
The archive covers everything from the construction of a dolphinarium in Tel Aviv to American Jewish women organizing boycotts of Nazi products. When the Jewish state was founded in May 1948, JTA printed Israel’s declaration of independence in its entirety.
Researchers say the archive will provide new insight into the ongoing evolution of American Jewish life, including the role of women, intermarriage and the history of Judaism in the United States. JTA’s dispatches also chronicled U.S. Jewish activism on several major issues, including civil rights and Soviet Jewry.
With the material now so easily accessible — not just to scholars in libraries but to students, journalists and casual Jewish and non-Jewish readers around the world — the archive has the potential to inaugurate a new era in understanding of American Jewish history, Sarna said.
“Until now, JTA has been the global news service of the Jewish people,” he said. “Now it is the educational resource for the Jewish people.”