Growing up in Lowell, Mass., in the 1950s and ’60s, Andrea Hoffman learned about the Holocaust at Hebrew school and later married into a family that included Holocaust survivors. Along the way, certain questions haunted her.
“I’ve always wondered what people knew. When did they know it? How did they know it?” said Hoffman, 65. Her mother had been a teenager in Boston during the war but had not paid much attention to the persecution of Jews in Europe at the time, and Hoffman was curious to know how aware her mother and others in the United States would have been.
So a couple of months ago, when she saw a newspaper ad about a new project encouraging “citizen historians” to investigate American newspapers’ accounts of Holocaust, she dived in.
The project, History Unfolded, is an initiative of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is using crowdsourcing to scour newspapers across the country for articles that ran between 1933 and 1945 on the plight of Europe’s Jews.
As it turns out, there were a lot of them. Since the project was launched in full in February, the museum has received 1,030 submissions from articles published in 46 states and the District. So far, 610 people have signed up, including 32 teachers working on the project with their students.
Although historians have studied the U.S. media’s take on the Holocaust, much of the investigation was done before the Internet and crowdsourcing widened the range of what was possible.
“Nobody has done this research, looking at so many papers in the 1930s and ’40s and seeing what the average American citizen would have been reading,” said Elissa Frankle, the museum’s digital projects coordinator. “If you live in that town, it’s going to be a lot easier for you to see than for us and to engage with primary sources.”
The museum selected 20 events related to the Holocaust in general or in relation to the United States’ involvement — for example, the opening of the Dachau concentration camp in 1933, the failure of a child refugee bill in the U.S. Congress in 1939, and Charles Lindbergh’s 1941 speech accusing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British and Jews of pushing the country toward war.
An exhibit planned for spring 2018 will incorporate the project’s findings, which will remain available online for researchers. By then the museum hopes to have material from 50 percent of the newspapers that were in circulation in 1940 and engage a fifth of the nation’s high school history classes — around 240,000 students.
“It helps teach young people that history is not just memorizing facts and dates,” said Aleisa Fishman, a historian at the museum. “It’s sort of a mystery that you have to solve, and you have to go looking for stuff.”
Jennifer Goss, a high school history teacher in Staunton, Va., said her students immediately took to the quaint format. “They thought it was so neat to go to the library and use microfilm,” she said.
They were also excited to see their community against the backdrop of major historical events. Their local paper, Staunton News Leader, had reported on nearby German POW camps, and the students spoke with people who remembered seeing German officers doing work around town.
“They don’t feel like Staunton’s a hub of world affairs, so they thought it was interesting that the government would have chosen to put those camps there,” Goss said.
Perhaps because they live in an age of unremitting information, her students overestimated how much material would be available. “Looking at it from a present-day lens, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is so important,’ ” she said. “Some of them were kind of frustrated that there wasn’t more.”
But others were shocked to see how much news had been printed on the Holocaust.
“My prevailing notion about this period in time was that a lot of what had happened with the Nazis during the ’30s and ’40s was not that well-known,” said Sandi Auerbach, 62, a retired IBM financial manager in Somers, N.Y., who is a member of the museum and has contributed more than two dozen articles to the project.
“I am amazed, quite frankly, at the coverage that there was in a lot of different papers,” Auerbach said. “For example, in 1933 there was a huge rally in Madison Square Garden with 20,000 people in attendance to protest the persecution of Jews in Germany. . . . The sad thing is that, given all that publicity, still the Holocaust happened.”
Tayte Patton, 17, whose English class in Lexington, Ky., is participating, said he was shocked at the United States’ inaction. “I never knew that we didn’t want to let Jews into the country,” he said. “I always thought that we would let anyone in, that we would be a refuge for the Jews.”
The research includes dailies and weeklies, African American newspapers, college papers, and U.S. papers in Yiddish, Spanish and other languages. Holocaust-related news sometimes made the front page, but small publications often printed it inside the paper.
However, a local connection might cause a paper to run a story more prominently. For example, when the SS Quanza, carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Portugal, was denied entry to Mexico in 1940 and docked in Norfolk for supplies, the Virginian-Pilot covered it. (The stranded travelers were eventually issued U.S. visas after Eleanor Roosevelt intervened on their behalf.)
Contributors say they have been struck by detailed accounts of the Nazis’ persecution and slaughter of Jews, along with a wide range of American opinions on whether to act on it.
But not all Americans got a chance to read what was in the papers, Frankle said, describing her conversations with people who were alive at the time. “They were saying, ‘Who had the ability to buy a paper? We were just trying to buy bread.’ ”
Even circulation figures do not tell the whole story, as family members and neighbors might have passed a single newspaper around.
Alex Adams, 72, a retired computer software developer in Marlton, N.J., who volunteers once a month at the museum, has focused on small papers from Montana, where he grew up in a town called Big Timber.
“There are dozens that don’t have anything,” he said, noting that front-page stories tended to focus on “wheat prices and fights over right of way on their property and Fourth of July picnics and such.” But in three papers he has found stories on subjects such as boycotts of Jewish businesses and discussions about what to do with the Jews.
Even coming up empty-handed is a contribution, showing that readers of certain papers would have had less exposure to what was happening, said David Klevan, the museum’s educational outreach specialist. “We’re asking folks to do real research, and a big part of real research is finding nothing.”
Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University history professor and museum board member who wrote “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945,” applauded the idea of engaging non-specialists to do history research.
“What could be better for a high school student than saying, ‘I’m not just doing a research project; what I’m finding could have implications [for] what’s being presented at the Holocaust Museum,” she said. “The question is if they come up with conclusions that are different from what the historians have always believed, that will be a moment of crisis [as to] how we’re going to work that out.”
Several contributors noted a clear connection between the events of the 1930s and ’40s and current affairs.
“These things that we’re hearing, with people against immigration and congressmen standing up and speaking against it, it’s exactly the arguments that we’re hearing now, and that’s been astonishing to read,” said Hoffman, who is also a volunteer at the museum and has been focusing on the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.
Goss said her students echoed that thought.
“Especially since we got to this project right around the time of the Syrian refugee crisis, they drew tremendous connections,” she said. “One student said, today, human rights violations and refugees are in her opinion much more in the news and that today no one has an excuse not to know.”