By Courtney Suciu
Rebecca Erbelding is a historian, archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. She specializes in the study of America reactions to the Holocaust and she and her colleagues coordinated an ongoing crowd-sourced project which examines how local U.S. newspapers covered the Holocaust.
We recently spoke with Erbelding to learn about this project and why local newspapers are so valuable for understanding what Americans knew about the events unfolding in Europe leading up to World War II – and how that shaped and reflected the perspectives of the American people.
Erbelding’s research interests center around what Americans did about the persecution of European Jews during the Holocaust. But to understand how Americans acted, she explained, she had to ask what Americans knew about the persecution of Jews beginning with Hitler’s rise to chancellor in 1933.
To find out, Erbelding and her colleagues turned directly to the source of information that Americans relied on most in the 1930s and ‘40s – local newspapers. The goal was to surface how pivotal events from the Holocaust period were covered by the press throughout every region in the U.S. and organize all of this information into a database that could be used by future scholars – which at first seemed like an insurmountable prospect.
“We knew there was no way we could research every U.S. paper over a ten-year period [1933-1943] by ourselves,” Erbelding said. And that’s where the idea came to solicit the public for help.
The call went out to students, teachers, history buffs and all “life-long learners” to track down copies of their own local newspapers.
As of June 20, 2019, 3,614 participants across the country have submitted more than 26,100 pieces of content from local newspapers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This content includes not only news articles, but editorials, letters to the editor, political cartoons and advertisements to reveal how the influence of then-current events rippled throughout American culture – a unique perspective not as discernible in any other media source.
While the aim of this project is to gather a comprehensive catalog of historical news for researchers of Holocaust studies, there has been a bounty of benefits for participants. In the process of curating this content, students and amateur historians are developing knowledge of the Holocaust which often contradicts common beliefs about how Americans responded to events that were transpiring in Europe.
Erbelding shared with us some observations historians have made in researching local U.S. news coverage of the Holocaust era.
For context, she explained that after Hitler became German chancellor in 1933, laws were enacted in Germany to make Jews second-class citizens. Erbeling said, “Jews couldn’t hold government jobs, teach in public school, or work as lawyers or doctors for non-Jews.
“And in 1935,” she added, “German Jews had their citizenship taken away.”
During this time, students and leading members of the Nazi Party carried out massive book burnings to destroy any publication that contradicted Nazi ideologies or were otherwise considered “un-German.” Bonfires broke out all over Germany and huge crowds gathered to witness works by prominent scientists, artists and intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish, were turned to ash.
Erbelding said accounts of these events were featured prominently in both major and local American newspapers. Journalists and their readers were shocked and outraged by such attacks on German intellectual freedom, and against the Jewish population. But, while activists in the U.S rallied against Nazi censorship, many people in the U.S. “weren’t clear on what could be done to help the Jews,” Erbelding said.
Antisemitism was rampant in the U.S. during the 1930s, and following the devastation of World War I, local newspapers reveal how most Americans took an isolationist view of international affairs. According to Erbelding, “these factors fed into a lack of tangible action to help Jews.”
This disinterest wasn’t entirely a matter of apathy, however. News about domestic issues took precedence as the U.S. was coming out of the Great Depression in the mid-to-late 1930s and Americans were preoccupied with changes brought about by FDR’s New Deal programs and policies. How would they impact and benefit small towns and communities? These stories were the ones emblazoned on the front pages of the nation’s local newspapers.
Right up until the U.S. entered World War II, the top priority for most Americans everywhere was to stay out of the war. Such a sentiment exacerbated cynicism toward reports of ghettos and concentration camps after Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Many people in the U.S. dismissed such claims of Jewish oppression as propaganda to incite America into war. These stories tended to be buried in local newspapers, if they were published at all.
When local newspapers did carry stories about events in Europe, they were generally the same reports from major news agencies. But, content in local newspapers reveal subtle differences that are invaluable to researchers. For example, even as news from Europe didn’t vary much from newspaper to newspaper, local community and newspapers wrote their own headlines for these articles.
This seemingly insignificant distinction could have a major influence on how a story might have been interpreted by a reader, whether it presented a story from a sympathetic or antagonistic angle. Such a detail might disclose the sympathies of an editor, publisher or specific community, especially when considered with other content unique to a specific paper, including its editorials, cartoons and letters. These could be fascinating research topics for students and scholars.
Another compelling avenue of research is in comparing mainstream press coverage with coverage in Black and Jewish newspapers during the Holocaust era.
For example, local African American publications, especially in the South, often couched content related to the persecution of Jews in the language of Jim Crow, Erbelding said. American populations impacted by the inequities brought about by segregation could see similarities between their plight and the treatment of Jews in Europe as the Nazis seized power.
From this perspective, Erbelding noted how some Black editors and newspaper contributors were sympathetic and advocated for solidarity with European Jews. In other cases, however, newspaper editorials and letters documented more isolationist sentiments. African Americans wondered why they should be concerned with the oppression of a population across the Atlantic when they were suffering injustices themselves, in their own neighborhoods.
Erbelding added that unlike most mainstream publications, Jewish American newspapers chronicled in detail events unfolding in Europe with increasing urgency and foreboding. Jewish American newspapers also advocated for more proactive responses to the plight of European Jews. On the pages of these local publications, Jewish activists called for boycotts of German goods and expressed the dire need for American intervention, urging the U.S. to open its border to the droves of refugees fleeing Europe.
Once the war broke out in 1939 and the press had limited access to report from Nazi-occupied Europe, Jewish papers also carried accounts of atrocities as relayed by family and friends who witnessed them first-hand. Mainstream American newspapers and the mainstream American public largely ignored or dismissed the pleas and accounts documented in Jewish publications, but such coverage provoked activists in Jewish communities to organize relief efforts for European Jews.
For further research
Local newspapers are essential to understanding what was really in the hearts and minds of Americans in disparate pockets of the country, from the heartland to the coasts, in rural areas and urban centers. This makes newspapers an invaluable to researchers.
Being able to compare local coverage in different regions enables students and researchers to take a closer look at what patterns emerge. For example, is there a relationship between antisemitic letters to the editor and other antisemitic activity in an area? How did coverage of events in Europe vary between Black and mainstream local newspapers? Did local publications which expressed more sympathy for Jewish refugees have higher Jewish populations? What were the demographics in communities where newspapers advocated for a more proactive approach to dealing with the persecution of Jews in Europe?
These are just some of research opportunities available to students and scholars using local news.
Learn how you can participate in the History Unfolded project from the American Holocaust Memorial Museum. Efforts are on-going to collect newspaper content related to American responses to the Holocaust. Read more to find out how you can help.
Researchers can also explore our comprehensive collection of ProQuest Historical Newspapers to discover the value of local, regional, and international coverage of historical events. Learn more.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu