Holocaust project focuses on what Americans knew and when




PITTSBURGH (AP) — When Beth Moody saw a recent ad on Facebook that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was asking "citizen historians" to crowdsource articles about the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945 from local newspapers, she didn't hesitate.

"I was already researching my family's history through the Altoona (Pa.) paper and figured I'd just look up these (Holocaust) events at the same time," said Moody, 55, of Wilkinsburg, who is a Title 1 reading teacher at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

Moody put in six hours over two days looking for articles on Newspapers.com from the now-defunct Altoona Tribune. She found stories related to six of the 20 Holocaust-related events the museum is asking people to look for.

It was what she did not find that will probably get the attention of the museum and scholars.

"The (Altoona Tribune) didn't have anything about (the anti-Jewish riots in 1938 known as) Kristallnacht, or the Jewish stars (that Jews had to wear), or the extermination camps; there was nothing, and I looked very closely," she said.

Why papers like the Altoona Tribune chose not to run stories about such events — when other papers did — is something that experts say will be studied closely. Scholars also want to know how these publication decisions affected public policy actions. It has already spurred a debate in Moody's family.

"My (adult) daughter and I had a debate about this and why there was nothing," she said. "My daughter said, 'Well, maybe it's because they're a little bigoted town over there.' But I said, 'If they were bigoted, maybe they would have liked to hear about Kristallnacht.' "

This pogrom also is known as the Night of Broken Glass.

The museum's historians hope the project, dubbed History Unfolded, officially announced April 5, will inspire thousands of more volunteers like Moody to do similar research over the next two years — leading to a 2018 exhibit entitled "Americans and the Holocaust."

Since the project began quietly last fall, more than 1,000 articles have been reviewed, approved and placed on the museum's permanent project database on its website at newspapers.ushmm.org/?search.

Technology has made such a project possible, now that more newspapers' archives are online.

But the museum hopes volunteers also will dig into those forgotten small-town papers that exist only on plastic roles of microfiche or the original hard copies in binders at local libraries.

While there have been several studies of how the nation's larger newspapers such as The New York Times and Chicago Tribune covered the Holocaust, "we don't really know anything about what small-town newspapers and regional papers told their readers," said Aleisa Fishman, a historian with the museum working on the project.

It would be almost impossible to ask volunteers to just research "the Holocaust" because it's too broad. Instead, the staff last year came up with a list of 20 significant events during the 1930s and 1940s, with specific dates for volunteers to search for. The events range from the U.S. decision to participate in the Olympic Games in Germany in 1936, to Kristallnacht in 1938, to deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.

The goal, said Elissa Frankle, who is leading the museum's project, is "to get at a question historians have been posing for a long time: What did Americans know about the Holocaust and when."

Laurel Leff, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, thinks "trying to find out what Americans knew about the Holocaust at the time is a really important project."

She is the author of "Buried by The Times," a roundly praised 2005 book that found that The New York Times altered and downplayed coverage of the Holocaust in part because of the views on Judaism of its Jewish owner at the time, Arthur Hays Sulzberger.

Leff, who is Jewish, said she grew up being told that "Americans did not know about the Holocaust" while it was ongoing.

When she lectures she often hears two disparate stories from audience members: One audience member will stand up and say there was nothing in the newspapers about the Holocaust, while another will say they knew about it and went to rallies because of the stories.

"I think for people who were engaged, there was no doubt about the truth," she said. "But maybe there were two Americas, and maybe even two Jewish Americas" where some did and some did not really know about the Holocaust at the time.

That viewpoint may have been demonstrated in some of the first articles submitted to History Unfolded.

One article submitted about the opening of the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich on March 23, 1933, came from Bangor, Maine's Daily News and declared in the headline to a wire story on the day that Dachau opened: "Mistreatment of Jewish Race in Germany Ends."

Meanwhile, that same day in a paper in Fredricksburg, Va., a locally-reported article with the headline "Sympathy Service by Friends of Jews" noted the response at a local Presbyterian church to what happened at Dachau.

"Those are very different views," Frankle said.

There have been 20 articles already submitted and approved from Pittsburgh newspapers, including 15 from The Pittsburgh Press, four from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and one from the now-defunct Jewish Criterion.

Twelve of those articles were submitted by Charlie Stern, 29, a research analyst for the federal government who lives in Overland Park, Kan.

"My grandfather came over (to the U.S.) from Germany in 1936 as these events were occurring," he said. "Basically, his story got me involved."

His grandfather, Herbert Stern, who is Jewish and still alive at 96, had told him stories about what he experienced in Berlin before he left, settled in Cincinnati with a cousin and later joined the U.S. Army and fought in Europe, including liberating two concentration camps.

Reading stories firsthand about some of the events his grandfather described "was powerful."

Charlie Stern has submitted more than 100 stories to History Unfolded from various papers, mostly Cincinnati papers, since he began searching in February.

The Pittsburgh stories "just came up on Newspapers.com when I would search on event search terms; there was a lot of coverage of these events in Pittsburgh," he said. "But I was struck that the American public started knowing more about these events as the war progressed."

As part of the project, the museum hopes to engage librarians and high school and college teachers and their students. The goal is to reach 20 percent of all high school students and half of the libraries in the country with the project.

Alan Bush, a history teacher at North Dame High School in Easton, Pa., said he jumped on the idea late last year when he heard about it from a friend. He has submitted some stories from Easton papers and is about to get his classes involved.

"Anytime you can add a local flavor to a history piece, it makes a difference with the students," he said.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com