In my youth, I would descend the metal stairs in our town’s public library into the cool of the shelf-lined basement, where I would lose myself in history, reading back issues of news magazines, mostly from the 1930s, ’40s and ‘50s.
Today, my fingers do the walking online. The internet may offer access to an astonishing range of publications, but I miss the feel of paper between my fingers and slowly turning the pages.
The earliest issues of the Southern Israelite available online date to 1929, the year the then-monthly publication moved to Atlanta from Augusta, where it had been founded in 1925 as a temple bulletin. Weekly editions began in October 1934. The name changed to the Atlanta Jewish Times in 1987.
Five years ago, I wrote a set of articles based on the Southern Israelite’s coverage, from Israel and in Atlanta, of the 1967 Six-Day War. More recently, I reviewed every page of every edition from 1933–45, to report on the newspaper’s coverage of the Holocaust. Here are outtakes from the latter project.
I already was familiar with Ralph McGill, who left the sports desk and became a syndicated columnist and executive editor of the Atlanta Constitution. I have read, more than once, the Pulitzer Prize-winning column he wrote the day after white supremacists bombed The Temple in October 1958. But it was through a March 1938 editorial in the Southern Israelite that I found the dispatches that McGill filed for the Constitution during his travels in Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Germany and Austria. McGill saw the growing threat of Nazi fascism and his observations proved prescient.
Throughout World War II, the Southern Israelite reported on honors accorded Jewish members of the U.S. armed forces, regardless of their hometown. A three-paragraph item in the Aug. 3, 1945, edition, under the heading “The Honor Roll,” reported that 43-year-old Col. David Marcus, of Brooklyn, had received the Army’s Distinguished Service Medal, “for his role in negotiating the surrender of Italy and Germany.”
Something clicked and my hunch was confirmed. This Col. Marcus was indeed “Mickey” Marcus, the American who became the first “aluf” (general) in Israel’s nascent army. The 1966 film “Cast a Giant Shadow” starred Kirk Douglas as Marcus and featured Yul Brynner, Angie Dickinson, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, among others.
An item with significance that could not have been known at the time was a single paragraph on the May 4, 1945, front page, about a typhus epidemic “raging” in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. From previous research I knew that two of the otherwise anonymous victims were Annelies Marie Frank, 15, and Margot Frank, 19. The sisters are believed to have died that February, two months before the camp was liberated. Their names would become known worldwide a couple of years later with the publication of the diary Anne kept while in hiding with her family in Amsterdam.
I often learn one thing while looking for something else. The Southern Israelite reported on “an eloquent speech … that left few listeners dry-eyed” by Rabbi H. Friedman of Congregation Shearith Israel at an April 19, 1944, memorial service marking the one-year anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. While seeking information about Friedman, I came across the text of the 1935 rabbinic opinion by which Rabbi Tobias Geffen deemed Coca-Cola to be kosher.
Geffen, for 60 years Shearith Israel’s spiritual leader, was allowed access to the secret formula (which he did not divulge) and persuaded the hometown company to alter the source of two ingredients. “It is now possible for the most stringent Halachist to enjoy Coca Cola throughout the year and on Passover,” he wrote. A 1984 change from sucrose to corn syrup rendered Coca-Cola problematic for Passover, but for the holiday the company also produces a version with sucrose, sold in bottles with yellow caps.
Then there is the full-page advertisement from Palmer Properties, a commercial real estate company, that appeared in magazine-format issues in 1939 and 1940. The ad featured an aerial photograph of downtown Atlanta, with three Palmer buildings circled. The headline reads: “How Atlanta Would Look to a Nazi bomber.” The ad’s text boasts: “And what good targets Palmer Properties would make, for they’re right in the midst of everything downtown.”
Someone thought that hyping a potential Nazi air raid on Atlanta would help business. By 1941 the ad’s text had changed. Someone had come to their senses.