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Notre Dame hosts second research sprint

| Monday, January 28, 2019

Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries, in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “History Unfolded” project, hosted ”The Holocaust in American Catholic Newspapers and Beyond,” a research sprint and panel discussion in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday.

During the research sprint, volunteers scoured through newspaper clips preserved on microfilm to unearth how the early stages of the Holocaust were covered by local reporters across the country.

“What we really want the researchers to do is to fill in the research gaps,” Eric Schmalz, community manager for the History Unfolded project, said. “How did the small-town newspapers report? How did the Catholic newspapers report? The Jewish press? The African-American press?”

Photo courtesy of Samantha Luckert

A participant in the first research sprint May 21, 2018, looks at newspaper clippings on microfilm. The second research sprint took place Friday, examining the manner in which the Holocaust was portrayed in American media in 1933 and 1934.

William Donahue, Holocaust scholar and director of Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, summarized what was uncovered by researchers at Notre Dame last spring regarding how the American Catholic press depicted Jewish oppression in Europe during Hitler’s reign in one sentence.

“We, or the Catholic press at the time, got it wrong,” Donahue said. 

Schmalz and his team showed a particular interest in partnering with Notre Dame after noticing a lack of news articles from the Catholic press in their database. Starting in the summer of 2017, they worked closely with Notre Dame visual arts librarian Marsha Stevenson to coordinate the first research sprint, which was hosted in May 2018.

Donahue said many of the articles uncovered during this first event incorrectly mischaracterized the violent persecution of Jews as simple “religious intolerance,” leading Catholics to be more envious than sympathetic.

“[Catholic commentators] repeatedly and openly complained that in all this attention to the Jews, intolerance towards Catholics and Christians [was] being overlooked,” Donahue said. “The Jews are hogging all of the attention.”

To back this point, he cited a political cartoon published Nov. 17, 1938 in The Catholic Union and Times depicting two boats: one of Jewish refugees, who were being flooded with attention, and another of Catholic refugees, who were being comparatively ignored. The caption was, “Our Own Need Help Too.”

“This is what I would characterize as ‘benevolent rivalry,’” Donahue said. “In other words, this isn’t anti-Semitism in the sense of wanting to kill Jews … but it is clearly the idea that they are less valuable.”

During Friday’s Research Sprint, participants focused on the years 1933 and 1934 to examine what the American press was saying about Jewish oppression at the dawn of Nazi Germany.

“We’re trying to challenge misconceptions about the Holocaust,” Schmalz said. “We have found at the museum … that a lot of people assume that Americans had no opportunity to know about the Holocaust during the time period and nobody did anything. So really part of what we are asking our researchers to do is give themselves an opportunity to have those misconceptions challenged and to learn more about the Holocaust history in this process.”

The information gathered through the research sprint will be used by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in an exhibit titled “Americans and the Holocaust,” which aims to “examine the motives, pressures, and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war and genocide,” according to the exhibit’s webpage.

“‘History Unfolded’ holds up the possibility of getting a denser, much richer, and finally more accurate picture of the Holocaust in the American press of this era,” Donahue said. “We will need to attend to the fuller picture, even when those details are not flattering, not uplifting and not at all Christ-like.”

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