What Did Americans Know? U.S. Holocaust Museum's Project Focuses on Small-Town Newspapers to Get a Broader Sense for How the Genocide Was Publicized

By Hamill, Sean D. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 25, 2016 | Go to article overview

What Did Americans Know? U.S. Holocaust Museum's Project Focuses on Small-Town Newspapers to Get a Broader Sense for How the Genocide Was Publicized


Hamill, Sean D., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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 Ms. Moody, 55, of Wilkinsburg, who is a Title 1 reading teacher at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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. …

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