New Project Uncovers What Americans Knew About the Holocaust

You can help historians learn how newspapers in the U.S. documented the persecution of European Jews

Hungarian Jews
During World War II, Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote an editorial in the New York Times that urged people to pay attention to Hungary's Jews. Wikimedia Commons

When the horrors of the Holocaust came to light after the end of World War II, the world reeled at revelations of concentration camps, mass murder and the enslavement of millions of Jews, homosexuals, political dissidents and Romani people. But the Holocaust’s horrors didn’t come as a surprise to the people who tried to warn others of Hitler’s plans. Now, a new initiative calls on the public to uncover evidence that people did know about the dangers of Nazi Germany before it was too late—and they want your help.

“History Unfolded: U.S. Newspapers and the Holocaust” is part of an attempt by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to both curate a 2018 exhibit focusing on Americans and the Holocaust and to collect data about what Americans knew as Hitler laid the plans for genocide and carried it out. Anyone can contribute to the project, which invites the public to find evidence of 20 major events in the archives of their local newspapers. The project doesn't just focus on the brutal implementation of the Nazis' Final Solution during the war—it looks at Americans' awareness of Hitler's growing power, anti-Jewish laws and growing violence before the Holocaust began.

Participants can gather letters, political cartoons and articles that relate to everything from journalist Dorothy Thompson’s expulsion from Germany to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the opening of Dachau concentration camp. It’s a chance to learn more about the era, contribute to a new exhibit and advance a growing body of evidence about what Americans knew about the Holocaust as it unfolded.

How extensive was knowledge of the Holocaust in the U.S.? It’s a question that has long intrigued historians. Despite a flood of Jewish refugees to the United States, evidence of Adolf Hitler’s instability and political plans, and even evidence of concentration camps and murder in Europe, the Allies passed by several opportunities to end Hitler’s Final Solution. Denial, administrative failures and crass anti-semitism collided to create an environment in which the Nazis’ unspeakable acts went unchallenged. As more and more evidence of people's awareness of Hitler's plans before and during the Holocaust comes to light, the image of an unknowing American public becomes harder and harder to uphold.

The result of the world's failure to act was tragic—and the “History Unfolded” project has already uncovered over 900 pieces of evidence of the warning signs that the United States failed to heed. Here are a few examples of people who sounded the alarm long before World War II came to an end:

1935: Herman Neugass Refuses to Sprint at the Nazi Olympics

A reader from Louisiana uncovered an article from the Times-Picayune that tells the tale of Herman Neugass, a Tulane University sprinter who refused to participate in the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin because of Hitler’s political stance toward Jews. Neugass, who was Jewish, boycotted the Olympics despite U.S. participation in the games.

1935: The Washington Post Criticizes Hitler’s Race Laws

A project participant tracked down an article that appeared in the Washington Post in September 1935. Hitler’s infamous Nuremberg Laws, which essentially forbade German Jews from participating in public life, had just been passed. The editorial called the laws evidence of “the menace to civilization implicit in dictatorships…Der Fuehrer ordered the approval of edicts depriving Jews of German citizenship and otherwise restoring the practices of medieval Europe.”

1939: John Knott Skewers Congress’ Unwillingness to Pass the Child Refugee Bill

Political cartoonist John Knott had little sympathy for the U.S. Congress’ indecision when it came to the Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill, a piece of 1939 legislation that would have opened slots for 20,000 German refugee children to enter the United States. The bill was opposed by anti-immigrant organizations and never became a law. Tens of thousands of German Jewish children went on to die in concentration camps. The cartoon was tracked down by a project participant and shared on one of its message boards.

1944: Anne O’Hare McCormick Warns of a Jewish “Extermination”

By the mid '40s, as the end of the war drew nearer, some reporters and pundits put two and two together and begged the United States to do more to protect Europe’s Jews. One such call came from New York Times reporter Anne O’Hare McCormick, who warned of a “twilight of the Nazi gods.” In the editorial, which a contributor added to the USHMM project, McCormick insisted that “hopeless or not...the world has to cry out against the awful fate that threatens the Jews in Hungary…these people are exposed to the same ruthless policy of deportation and extermination that was carried out in Poland.”

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