The Southern Israelite and the Holocaust

The Southern Israelite and the Holocaust

Atlanta’s Jewish newspaper kept readers well informed on the developing horror in Europe.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution (second from left), receives an award in July 1947 from the Georgia Department of the Jewish War Veterans for his “untiring efforts in combating the forces of bigotry.” // Provided by The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum
Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution (second from left), receives an award in July 1947 from the Georgia Department of the Jewish War Veterans for his “untiring efforts in combating the forces of bigotry.” // Provided by The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

A banner headline — “The Nazi Terror In Full Swing” — topped the front page of the Aug. 2, 1935, edition of the Southern Israelite.

Robert Brown, a “special correspondent,” reported on “pogroms spreading to hundreds of German cities and towns … passions fanned by the Nazi press,” Jews barred from municipal bathing establishments, resorts giving Jews 24 hours to clear out and summer camps sending home Jewish children.

A page-four headline declared: “Elimination of Jewish Race Is Aim of Reich.” A smaller headline read: “Plan Legislation to Expel Jews or Segregate Them in Ghettos.” Two years into Adolf Hitler’s rule as Nazi Germany’s “Fuhrer,” readers of Atlanta’s Jewish newspaper had been forewarned.

Atlanta’s roughly 10,000 Jews supported five synagogues and a variety of communal organizations. The Southern Israelite, founded in 1925 as a temple bulletin by an Augusta, Ga., rabbi, proved popular enough to publish monthly. New owners moved the publication to Atlanta in 1929. The weekly edition debuted on Oct. 19, 1934. An annual subscription cost $2. (The newspaper’s name changed to the Atlanta Jewish Times in 1987.)

Aug. 2, 1935/The Nazi Terror in Full Swing headline

A review of every page of every edition from 1933 to 1945 found countless — perhaps a few thousand — articles on the oppression and brutality suffered by European Jewry and the response by the U.S. government and public. Most came from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Worldwide News Service (WNS) and Jewish Press Service (JPS), supplemented by pieces written for or shared with the Southern Israelite. The same sources reported on Palestine and the Zionist movement. Coverage of Jewish affairs centered on Atlanta but stretched across the South.

Within two months of Hitler being named chancellor of Germany on Jan. 30, 1933, the Southern Israelite published “The German Situation,” which quoted a New York Times editorial: “Sensible Germans must see that their rulers are proposing to make an enlightened people lurch back into the Dark Ages.”

A proposal that Jewish organizations raise “a large sum of money for a mass exodus of German Jewry” was labeled an economic impossibility by Rabbi David Marx of The Temple. “You cannot take 200,000 people out of Germany with the world in its present economic distress and settle them,” he told his weekly forum on Jan. 12, 1936, the newspaper reported. Marx warned that Germany likely would use such money to finance its military, adding that “the world will face war sooner than it thinks if Germany is allowed to do this thing.”

Nov. 24, 1944/I Was At Maidenak headline

In the fall of 1936, Atlantan Harry Lahman returned from a trip to France, Poland, Germany and Russia. “The tragedy of the Jew in Poland is not hidden from the tourist as it is in Germany,” the Warsaw native told the Southern Israelite. “All about me in the villages I saw evidence of the grim plight of Polish Jewry.”

Lahman visited Mińsk Mazowiecki, the site of a June pogrom that killed five and injured more than 100, prompting half of the town’s 10,000 Jews to flee to Warsaw. Left in its wake, WNS reported, were “Broken windows, shattered doors, merchandise strewn over the streets, buildings in ruin, the synagogue in flames, Jewish houses and shops barricaded and shuttered.”

He also visited Przytyk, site of another pogrom. “In each town, the leaders of the Jewish communities could scarcely speak of the disaster, so profound was their grief,” Lahman reported.

But not everyone seemed willing to consider worst-case scenarios.

“I recognize that the situation of the Jew in Poland is grievous and trying,” Samuel C. Lamport, chairman of the American Jewish Institute for the Advancement of Polish Commerce and Industry, wrote in the June 25, 1937, edition. Nonetheless, “Our duty in this situation is clear. We cannot take the Jews out of Poland. We must help them to live in Poland. The more trying and difficult their circumstances, the more imperative our duty to help them.”

Belief in America as a safe haven persisted. “The tradition of the United States in giving asylum to men persecuted because of religious or political beliefs remains unbroken,” the Southern Israelite editorialized on April 1, 1938. That tradition already was crumbling, under pressure from Congress and the public not to relax immigration quotas. The newspaper reported the failure to meet existing quotas, even as waiting lists for visas grew to the tens and hundreds of thousands.

The Southern Israelite praised reporting in the Atlanta Constitution by Ralph McGill, who took a leave as sports editor for a Rosenwald Fellowship that funded his travels in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Britain, Germany and Austria. A March 6, 1938, editorial said that McGill “pours out his astonishment, his bewilderment over the hate instinct in children who are being reared by the monster of Fascism.” The Jewish newspaper cited McGill’s observation in the Constitution that the Nazis “are bringing up their children entirely devoid of any of the qualities which differentiate man from the beast.”

That hate was on display Nov. 9-10, 1938, during Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” when coordinated attacks on Jews, Jewish institutions and Jewish businesses were perpetrated across Germany.

Robert Arden wrote in a Nov. 18 front page article that “a whole world stood by, breathlessly shocked and at a momentary loss of understanding how to cope with such unexpected onslaughts upon its civilization, culture and traditions,” before finding sufficient voice to denounce the Nazis.

In April 1939, as nations under Nazi control revoked the citizenship of Jewish inhabitants, WNS reported that U.S. consulates in Berlin and Paris had suspended, at least until July, issuing visas to refugees from Germany and other nations. Paris had a backlog of 30,000 applications and new applicants could expect to wait six years to be processed. That consulate was limited to issuing just 15 visas per month for Polish refugees.

Rabbi Joseph I. Cohen of Congregation Or VeShalom. // Provided by The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Across the expanding Nazi Reich, Jewish citizens were losing their homes, livelihoods and, in increasing numbers, their lives. The Southern Israelite acknowledged a change in perspective.

“Many of our people have succumbed to a mood of utter despair and hopelessness. … We must steel ourselves against such despondent conclusions,” the paper editorialized on Dec. 1, 1939. “Prior to 1933 we were too optimistic … confident that ‘the great cultured’ German nation would not elevate the ex-corporal demagogue Adolph Hitler to the position of supreme dictator and that the Jews in Germany were safely entrenched in their position. Today we are erring in the opposite direction. We tend to be to [sic] pessimistic. Some in their despair are ready to concede that the Jewish losses are irreparable.”

No degradation was too small, as Devere Allen, editor of the No Frontier News Service, reported on the Feb. 16, 1940, front page. His source, coming “Straight from tormented Warsaw” was a “Jewish professional woman, highly educated in the analysis of social problems.” Allen wrote: “In some towns, Jewish women have adopted the custom of carrying dry scrub-rags in their handbags, for they know that they may be called upon at any moment to scrub the floor of some apartment they are passing by, and if they can’t provide a rag, they may have to use their coats.”

The last Jewish ghetto in Europe, in Rome, had been abolished in 1870. The Nazis decreed the establishment of new ghettos.

A JTA dispatch published Oct. 18, 1940, credited Alvin J. Steinkopf of the Associated Press, “the first and only non-German correspondent permitted to make an exhaustive inspection” of German-controlled cities in Poland. Inside the Warsaw ghetto, 500,000 Jews were hemmed inside an area of 100-or-so square blocks, surrounded by an 8-foot concrete wall that Steinkopf described as being “so tight a cat couldn’t get through it.” JTA reported in August 1941 that 2,000 Jews were dying monthly within those walls, as cholera and typhus spread due to unsanitary conditions.

The situation in Europe was an agenda item at the end of January 1941, when Atlanta hosted the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, a gathering of delegates from 230 organizations in 167 U.S. and Canadian cities.

Vera Micheles Dean of the Foreign Policy Association told a dinner meeting on “Our Responsibilities in a War-Torn World”: “The problem of tomorrow in Europe and throughout the world is not restoration, but reconstruction. We need not merely an effort to save democracy, that is defensive tactics, an ideological Maginot Line. What we need are efforts to improve and strengthen democracy — in other words, we need an ideological offensive against Nazism. The democratic countries have within them the great latency vitality. If we have sufficient courage to realize our view of the new order, we may find that it is democracy, not Nazism, that represents the wave of the future,” the Southern Israelite reported.

But in the early months of 1941, the readers learned that 15,000 Jews a month were being deported from Vienna to a “reservation” in Poland, 60,000 German Jews were starving in French camps and Nazi advances were threatening the welfare of 75,000 Yugoslav Jews and 65,000 in Greece.

“Where are they?” the Southern Israelite asked in the headline to an April 25, 1941, editorial that began: “Somewhere on the suffering continent of Europe are our relatives — kinsman near and distant — and as the Nazi steam-roller continues its invincible course, crushing underneath lives and spirit, we wonder about our family.”

Rabbi David Marx of The Temple. // Provided by The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

JTA reported in August that thousands of Hungarian Jews had been rounded up for deportation to Poland; in October that thousands of machine-gunned Jewish corpses were seen floating in Ukraine’s Dniester River; and in February 1942 that, since the previous July, 30,000 Jews in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, had “disappeared without any trace.”

Germany’s killing machine encountered an infrastructure problem. Deportations to Poland from Germany and the Baltic states stopped “because of the inability of the Nazi authorities to secure sufficient transportation facilities,” JTA reported on April 3, 1942.

Deportations resumed several weeks later, with JTA reporting on May 21 that “the Jews were being jammed into cattle trains” bound for ghettos in Warsaw, Riga and Vilna. There would be more reports of Jews herded into locked rail cars, with barbed wire covering ventilation holes.

Rabbi Joseph I. Cohen led congregants at Atlanta’s Congregation Or VeShalom in “a special mourning service” on Dec. 6, 1942, “in tribute to the memory of the countless Jews who have lost their lives as a result of Nazi persecution and terrorism,” the Southern Israelite reported. Cohen called for fasting in addition to religious devotion and, in response to his asking worshippers “to show in concrete form their feeling of sympathy,” $74 was contributed to the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Fund.

Some sought a silver lining within the dark clouds. The United Jewish Appeal, in a “special to the Southern Israelite,” declared in February 1943 that “more than 1 million Jews were saved from destruction” thanks to the Joint Distribution Committee, United Palestine Appeal and National Refugee Service. More than 200,000 reached the U.S.

A full-page fundraising appeal for the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Board appeared on May 7, 1943, under the headline “Remember the dead … RESCUE THE LIVING!”

The reality, however, was that immigration to the United States was at an 80-year low. JTA reported that, of 23,735 “immigrant aliens” admitted in the year ending June 30, 1943, the largest group, numbering 4,705, were Jews mostly “in flight from Nazi persecution.” That was barely 10 percent of the number of Jews admitted in 1939 and fewer than half the number admitted in 1942.

“President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, at his press conference this week, indicated that the U.S. Government definitely is interested in the fate of the Jews in occupied Europe,” JTA reported on Nov. 12. “The problems of rescuing them and sending them immediate relief are merely questions of ways and means,” he said.
The Jewish death toll reached into the seven digits.

Samuel Zygelboim, a Jewish member of the Polish National Council, estimated that of 3.5 million Jews living in pre-war Poland, only 1 million to 1.25 million remained, JTA reported on Dec. 11, 1942.

Below the headline “Europe’s Jewry Faces Darkest Year,” JTA correspondent Otto Schick reported on Jan. 8, 1943, that half of the 4 million civilians killed by the Nazis were Jewish.

President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, at his press conference this week, indicated that the U.S. Government definitely is interested in the fate of the Jews in occupied Europe. The problems of rescuing them and sending them immediate relief are merely questions of ways and means.

WNS reported in February 1943 that Warsaw and Vienna were “Judenrein” (free of Jews), and that more than half of the 650,000 Jews remaining in Poland were in ghettos.

A community-wide memorial service at Congregation Beth Jacob on April 19, 1944, marked the first anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which began on that date in 1943 and was crushed a month later by German troops. The Southern Israelite reported that the ark was draped in black and that the service began with the chanting of the Kaddish.

Nathan Katz, of the Russian War Relief, told the assembled that the ghetto fighters “gave the Nazis a taste of the fighting Jewish tradition, of the Maccabees, of Bar Kochba, and of the Jewish fighters in every generation,” the newspaper reported. “Rabbi H. Friedman of the Shearith Israel Congregation, in an eloquent speech that left few listeners dry-eyed, pledged that we would not forget the great struggle for freedom enacted in Poland, and urged unity of all Jews in the fight to annihilate Nazism and anti-Semitism.”

Grisly stories were emerging from Nazi death camps in Poland.
Soviet troops captured Majdanek in July 1944. Arriving in September, JTA correspondent Raymond Davies reported that two-thirds of the 1.5 million men, women and children killed there were Jewish. The Southern Israelite reported that a list of survivors was available at its office.

May 7, 1943/fundraising appeal ad/Remember the Dead, Save the Living

Davies’ dispatch from Majdanek appeared in the New York newspaper PM and was republished Nov. 24 by the Southern Israelite. Near barracks, reporters saw fields of cabbage and tomatoes “covered with a greyish dust,” while nearby was “a huge mound of what looked like fertilizer,” he reported. “The Soviet official told us the pile consisted of human ash and manure mixed.”

Further on were chimneys and brick furnaces. “The furnaces were full of ash. Most of it was powdery stuff, unidentifiable. But I saw some larger pieces readily identifiable as human bones,” Davies wrote.

Chilling accounts came from Birkenau and Auschwitz, camps established by the Nazis on the outskirts of the Polish city of Oświęcim. (The Nazis gave the name Konzentrationslager Auschwitz to the complex of 40 concentration and death camps, which included Birkenau.)

Information originating with two international Christian relief agencies — about the Nazis using gas chambers as killing centers — was confirmed by the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile and reported by Frederick Kuh, London correspondent of the Chicago Sun. A JPS account appeared July 16 in the Southern Israelite.

Sept. 8, 1944/One and a Half Million Jews Survive in Europe headline

“According to careful calculation, between April 1942, and April 1944, from 1,500,000 to 1,750,000 Jews were put to death by gas or other means. Half were Poles. … Twice weekly the camp doctor selects those to be gassed,” the Czechs reported. That figure did not include 400,000 Hungarian Jews, half of that country’s Jewish population, who were also sent to death camps.

JPS, citing cables from New York Times correspondent Daniel T. Brigham, also reported that “the death chambers … consist of fake bathing establishments into which cyanide gas is released the moment all the victims, stripped, have been shut in.”

A JTA report from Bucharest, published on March 16, 1945, said: “The Jewish survivors from Oswiecim who arrived here all told the same gruesome stories of how hundreds of thousands of Jews were burned alive in the ovens at the camp” and how 3,000 children transported from Polish towns and the Teresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia died in the gas chambers.

In late November 1944, the War Refugee Board, which Roosevelt established by executive order, released a 60-page report. Milton Brown’s review, published on the Southern Israelite editorial page, included the presence of “prominent guests” from Berlin in March 1943 when the crematoria at Birkenau began operation, with the gassing of 8,000 Jews from Cracow [Kraków]. “The guests, both officers and civilians, used special peepholes to see the victims done to death and were lavish in their praise of this newly erected installation,” he wrote.

Brown also reported that the Rescue Department of the World Jewish Congress now estimated the number of Jewish dead in Germany and German-occupied territories at 5.5 million.

Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. Hitler had committed suicide. The Southern Israelite marked V-E (Victory in Europe) Day with a banner headline on May 11: “End of Nazism Hailed Throughout The World.”

A supplement published on behalf of the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Fund declared: “1 Million Liberated Jews Look To You For Help.” The text described them as “More than 1 million starving, destitute souls, released from Nazi concentration camps, from hiding in caves and holes and homeless in devastated Europe.”

The Southern Israelite reported less about the war in the Pacific. Once the U.S. entered the war — the day after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base — the newspaper listed Jewish events to support military personnel in the Atlanta area. The paper published reports of heroism and honors received by Jewish military personnel, no matter their hometown, and notices of Jewish troops killed in action.

After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s emperor announced his nation’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. A front-page editorial two days later argued that “… although the war was fought with the most murderous weapons ever invented — it was, fundamentally, a war of ideas and ideals, and that we had on our side the conviction within ourselves to be fighting for a righteous cause.”

Another headline declared: “Conference Demands Jewish State Now.” Two-thirds of European Jewry had been murdered. In the months and years to come, the plight of approximately 3 million Holocaust survivors would share the front page with efforts to create a Jewish nation in Palestine.

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