Dr. Mark Celinscak, Louis and Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Director, Sam and Frances Fried Fund of Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Department of History, University of Nebraska Omaha
Students at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) are investigating how local and regional newspapers reported on the Holocaust. They are taking part in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) History Unfolded project. The museum is asking “citizen historians” to visit local archives and investigate what had been published regarding the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945 in both Europe and the United States.
Past scholarship on American media and the Holocaust focused exclusively on large circulation publications, such as the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune. Most stories on the subject were found in the back pages of these newspapers. In Buried by the Times (2005), journalist and professor Laurel Leff found that between 1939 and 1945 the New York Times published only six front-page stories that clearly identified Jews as the primary victims of the Holocaust. To date, no research has tackled the question of how Americans reading local newspapers learned about the Holocaust as it unfolded. By contributing to the USHMM’s database, students at UNO are helping uncover the type of information available to ordinary Americans in communities throughout Nebraska.
Using microfilm readers in local libraries, students are surveying newspapers such as The Lincoln Star, Lincoln State Journal, Omaha Bee and The Jewish Press. Some of their initial findings are challenging the narrative that the American media generally failed in its reporting on the Holocaust. For example, in The Lincoln Star students have uncovered front-page stories with titles such as Jews Denied Citizenship By Reichstag (Sept. 16, 1935), Synagogues Destroyed By Nazis (Nov. 10, 1938), Race Extinction: Death Of All Jews Ordered… In Occupied Europe (Nov. 25, 1942) and Three out of every four Americans think mass murder stories by Germans are true (Dec. 3, 1944). In other newspapers based in Nebraska, students have found similar front-page stories.
According to UNO student Afra Albassam, “I always thought that the mass media did not do its job in reporting on the Holocaust, or even if it did, it was at the fringe of the page. To my surprise, the regional newspapers did follow and report on the unfolding of the Holocaust.” While some important Holocaust-related stories were buried in the back pages of these local newspapers, a number of crucial events received detailed, front-page treatment.
Omaha’s The Jewish Press offered extensive coverage concerning the fate of Europe’s Jews. For example, receiving comprehensive exposure was the plight of the MS St. Louis, the German transatlantic liner that carried more than 900 Jewish refugees in search of US visas. “This is a group… guilty of no crime whatsoever [and] they are in peril,” wrote Heywood Broun, a syndicated columnist whose article There is a Ship was printed in full in The Jewish Press (June 23, 1939). Broun warned readers that the world “stuffs its ears and pays no attention.” Ultimately, the MS St. Louis was forced to return to Europe where more than 250 Jews who had been aboard the ship did not survive the war. As the History Unfolded project demonstrates, while Americans were aware of the growing threat facing European Jewry, for a variety of reasons public opinion still favored restrictions on immigration. One cannot help but observe parallels with the current refugee crisis in the world today.
UNO student Antony Schneider admits that this assignment has prompted him to think more critically about how news is being reported. “It brings to mind events happening in Syria and other areas of the Middle East,” Schneider explains, “It forced me to consider what modern media outlets find important enough to present to readers.” Indeed, History Unfolded encourages students to grapple with the complexity of the past and to ask serious questions about the way information is being relayed in the present.
Over the last several weeks, students at UNO have nearly tripled the number of newspaper articles in the USHMM database concerning the State of Nebraska. They have learned more about their local communities and the Holocaust, as well as gained new skills as they discover how historical research works. In the future, data from the History Unfolded project will be used to inform the USHMM’s upcoming exhibition on Americans and the Holocaust.