'Americans and the Holocaust'
Daniel Greene, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The story, distributed to the Post from the Associated Press wire service, read: “The Polish Ministry of Information said today that more than 500,000 persons, mostly Jews, had been put to death at a concentration camp at Oswiecim, southwest of Krakow.” It went on to describe the crematoria inside the camp: “The report asserted that men, women, and children arrive by truck-loads and are removed to gas chambers, where 10 to 15 minutes are required for execution.” These words, with some additional horrific details, ran below the headline: “Poles Report Nazis Slay 10,000 Daily.”
There is a misconception that Americans had little access to information about the threat of Nazism, including the persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews, as it occurred. 'Americans and the Holocaust', the new special exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, dispels this myth.
News about many aspects of the Nazi threat regularly appeared in American magazines and newspapers, as well as in newsreels and on radio, from the earliest days of Hitler’s reign through the mass murder during the Holocaust. Americans who were paying close attention could have learned a great deal about Nazi ideology and persecution. As the influential American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1932, the year before Hitler became Chancellor: “Anti-Semitism is the life and soul of Hitler’s movement. The Nazis lose no opportunity to insult the Jews.”
An interactive, touchscreen map of the United States at the beginning of the exhibition shows that Americans across the country had access to reports about the Nazis’ April 1933 boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, German students’ burning of books the next month, and the Nuremberg Laws that stripped German Jews of their citizenship in September 1935. These were just three of the many stories covered in the American press.
A museum-sponsored crowdsourcing project called History Unfolded has asked students and citizens from all over the United States to research what their local newspapers published about Nazism. The response has been overwhelming: more than 15,000 articles from American newspapers have been submitted to the museum, making this the largest collection of press on the topic ever assembled. This effort by citizen historians across the country challenges conventional wisdom, showing that Americans did not have to live in a major metropolitan city to have access to information about the dangers of Nazism and, perhaps more significantly, disproving the assumption that news coverage was always “buried” in the back pages of newspapers. It was not.
Examples from the American press are woven throughout the exhibition 'Americans and the Holocaust'. They raise a troubling question about this history: If Americans had access to such significant information about Nazism, including the treatment of Jews, why did the rescue of Jews never become a priority for the majority of the American people or, perhaps more significantly, for the US government?
Americans who picked up the Washington Post on March 22, 1944 might have glanced at a short, three-paragraph article on page 2 under the header “WAR SIDELIGHTS.”
All photos in this article: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum