Today, every news consumer has heard of Babi Yar, the forest outside Kiev where the Germans killed tens of thousands of Jews in September 1941. The killing was marked by significant help from Ukrainian militiamen and just plain thugs. The massacre was done in broad daylight, with literally thousands watching the shooting of naked men, women and children into the giant pits outside the city.
The reports of the massacre, the biggest yet in World War II, spread quickly throughout Ukraine and neighboring Poland. The last ones to know were the Jews in Palestine. The reason: censorship by the Zionist leadership, which controlled virtually all of the Jewish newspapers in the Yishuv. For weeks, the Hebrew and other language newspapers were prevented from telling the more than 500,000 Jews of the German extermination campaign. This marked a policy easily defended by Jewish Agency chairman and Mapai chief David Ben-Gurion during the war.
“Of course there will be information about all of this,” Ben-Gurion was quoted as telling the Mapai leadership, “but this is not a central fact in the experience of the Yishuv.”
On Sept. 29-30, a week after the Jewish New Year, the Einsatzgruppe, aided by the Wehrmacht and thousands of Ukrainians, marched more than 30,000 people from downtown Kiev to the forest of Babi Yar. The Germans were pleased with the results of the 36-hour massacre, so pleased that soon the Wehrmacht brought 28 correspondents from 10 countries to Kiev. A Ukrainian representative of the Nazi-ruled administration told the reporters that all 350,000 Jewish residents were gone. He did not say where. It was a question asked by Felice Bellotti of Italy’s La Stampa in his report on Oct. 30, 1941. Sixteen days earlier, the Associated Press reported from Berlin that 300,000 people from Kiev had left the city before the German invasion.
In Palestine, no questions were asked. The reason was that the Jews were not told of Babi Yar although all 15 daily newspapers in the Yishuv knew what had taken place. Even after the Soviet media reported the massacre the Hebrew and English newspapers overseen by the Zionist leadership remained silent.
The first Western news outlet known to report Babi Yar was the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Founded by Jacob Landau in 1917, JTA reported on Jewish communities around the world, particularly Europe during World War I. Eventually, the agency, supported by major Western Jewish organizations, built up a correspondent network in dozens of countries and a clientele of more than 400 newspapers, many of them dailies. From early on, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues detested JTA because it would not adopt their agenda. In 1934, the Jewish Agency established a rival service called the Palestine Correspondence Agency, or Palcor.
On Oct. 21, 1941, JTA provided the first hints of the massacre. The headline of the short dispatch told it all: “Nazis Drive Jews in Ukraine to Unknown Destination; Kiev Made Judenrein.” JTA had no correspondent in Kiev. Somebody had simply read a Ukrainian newspaper published in the occupied Polish city of Cracow called Krakiwski Wisti, and which arrived in London on Oct. 21. Krakiwski Wisti described how “all Jews” were taken from their homes and forced to march to an undisclosed destination.
“The ‘thoroughness’ with which the Nazis expelled the Jews from the Ukraine cities is highly commended in the Krakiwski Wisti,” JTA said. “‘The military Gestapo has performed a wonderful job in purging these aliens from our Ukrainian soil,’ the paper writes.”
The hints in Krakiwski Wisti of the fate of the Jews were not difficult to figure out. The newspaper told of how the Germans had driven out the Jews from Zhitomir, where the first division of pro-Nazi Ukrainians has been organized and deployed.
All of the Jewish newspapers in Palestine received the JTA report. Nobody published it.
On Nov. 16, JTA was certain of the fate of the Kiev Jews. Now, the agency’s headline read, “Nazis Execute 52,000 Jews in Kiev; Smaller Pogroms in Other Cities.” The massacre, reported by what was described as “an unimpeachable source,” said the killing was systematic and methodical.
“The details available here establish that the victims did not lose their lives as the result of a mob pogrom, but by systematic, merciless execution carried out in accordance with cold-blooded Nazi policy of Jewish extermination,” JTA said. “Similar measures, though on a smaller scale, have been taken in other conquered towns.”
The Soviet press reacted to the JTA report. On Nov. 18, the official Tass news agency cited JTA’s Overseas News Agency. A day later, both Pravda and Izvestia followed. On Nov. 29, Pravda spoke of a “pogrom” in Kiev that killed 52,000 people, including Ukrainian and Russian gentiles.
The Hebrew media in Palestine did nothing. They were focused on the death of Menachem Ussishkin, a founding father of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel, as well as US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jew on this body.
The two most powerful newspapers in the Yishuv were Davar and Haaretz. The former was Ben-Gurion’s organ, the official daily of the Histadrut Labor Federation, which followed British policy to the letter. The privately-owned Haaretz was similar in its allegiance and regarded as the newspaper of the elite. Neither published any of the two JTA reports on the decimation of Kiev’s Jews — even after the Soviet press published details.
But there were hints that something was up. On Nov. 20, Haaretz ran a headline “Massacre of Jews Also in Kiev.” Haaretz presented and then denied the information. It quoted Palcor as citing Overseas on the massacre. Haaretz then concluded the tiny article by lying: “No confirmation was received from any other source.”
Davar broke its silence on Nov. 30, two weeks after the JTA report. In an inside brief, Davar merely said, “Tens of thousands killed in Kiev.” It cited JTA’s figure of 52,000 dead, adding in parenthesis “most of them Jews.”
On that same day, the opposition daily Haboker ran a similar article, but on Page 1. “The headline: “Tens of Thousands of Jews Slaughtered in Kiev,” attributing the information to the Soviet military newspaper Red Star.
Haaretz remained silent. So, did the Palestine Post.
The refusal by the Jewish press in Palestine to acknowledge Babi Yar marked Zionist policy throughout World War II. Within weeks of the German invasion of Poland, Davar, whose editor Berl Katznelson was close to Ben-Gurion, warned readers and other newspapers not to believe or publish reports of German persecution and killings of Jews. Later, Haaretz claimed that all news from Nazi-occupied Europe stemmed from questionable sources and until late in the war assured its readers that life under German occupation was harsh but manageable. The Mizrahi daily Hatsofe was blunt: “Sit and don’t do anything… Sit and don’t inform.”
There was no evidence of open British censorship regarding the genocide of European Jews. Mandate authorities did not jam the BBC or block the arrival of British newspapers, which maintained coverage of the Final Solution.
Indeed, direct censorship was usually unnecessary. When the British wanted something from the Yishuv press, they needed only to ask Ben-Gurion or Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, head of the Vaad Leumi, touted as the parliament of the Jewish community.
The protocols of the Jewish Agency Executive during the war reveal two reasons for the Zionist censorship. The first was to stop Jewish protests against Hitler’s extermination campaign. The British were worried that street demonstrations could quickly turn into attacks by those enraged by London’s policy of stopping Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The second reason was that the Zionist movement was driven by the need to placate Hitler. Virtually all of the Zionist factions maintained a presence in Germany and occupied Europe, under the auspices of the SS and Gestapo. The Reich facilitated the transfer of money to the Zionists. The Nazi leadership invited Zionist representatives to administer the Jewish ghettos. Zionist leaders feared that this could be taken away at any time.
In April 1944, Hebrew newspapers were reporting the steady withdrawal of the Wehrmacht from the Eastern Front. The Executive’s Moshe Shapira expressed concern. He said this could hurt the Jews, meaning Zionists.
The Zionist leadership knew that the Nazis were reading everything published in Palestine. In January 1944, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog decided on a trip to Turkey. Herzog had been demonstrating far too much independence for the leadership. The Executive’s Yitzhak Greenbaum worried that the Germans would think that the rabbi’s visit, reported in the Palestine Post, was authorized by the leadership. “The Germans will read this and make trouble…,” he told his colleagues.
Nearly a decade after the war, the Zionist-controlled media was revisited at the trial of Malchiel Grunwald, charged with libeling Rudolf Kastner, a key Mapai emissary in Europe and deemed a collaborator in the deportation of more than 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. Grunwald’s attorney, Shmuel Tamir, reviewed the concealment of the Holocaust by Davar and its competitors. He concluded that the Final Solution had been marginalized throughout the Yishuv, but not because of British censorship.
“And why this suppression of the dreadful news by Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Weizmann and all the official leaders of Jewry?” Tamir asked. “Because, had the masses in Palestine known then what was happening in Hungary, and known then the stony hearts of their leaders, a storm would have risen in our land. Power would have fallen out of their hands. And this, it seems, was more important to them. There is no other explanation.”
Today, the Israeli state and media are presenting 24/7 coverage of another invasion of Ukraine. This time, the reports, inspired by the Western media, tell of 400 civilians killed in 12 days of Russian battle. Babi Yar was mentioned once — in a report that the Russian Air Force had bombed the forest.