Students discover locals knew a lot about Nazi threat
Holocaust remembranceLocal students studying PGH newspapers during the Holocaust

Students discover locals knew a lot about Nazi threat

Winchester Thurston students are partnering with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to disprove the myth that Americans were unaware of what was happening during the Holocaust.

This photo, which shows U.S. officials processing alien registration documents in 1940, is part of the "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibit. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services History Office & Library)
This photo, which shows U.S. officials processing alien registration documents in 1940, is part of the "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibit. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services History Office & Library)

It long has been a myth that Americans were unware of what was happening to Jews during the Holocaust. But “Americans and the Holocaust,” a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, flatly dispels that myth while examining why, despite extensive media coverage of Jewish persecution, the rescue of the Jews of Europe never became a priority for the U.S. government.

Two teachers at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside and their students have contributed to that exhibit by doing hands-on research of local newspaper reports from the 1930s and 1940s, including those published in the Chronicle’s predecessor paper, the Jewish Criterion, and providing those articles to the museum in Washington.

Callie DiSabato, who teaches middle school English, and Jared Gervais, a social studies teacher, led their eighth-grade students on the search for truth as participants in the “History Unfolded” project of the USHMM, scanning hundreds of newspaper articles to find out what Pittsburghers could have known about the Nazi threat, and then submitting their findings to the museum’s online database, thereby making that information available to the general public.

Each year, Winchester Thurston’s eighth grade studies the Holocaust, and travels to Washington, D.C., to visit the museum. When the teachers learned of the “History Unfolded” project, they were eager to get their students involved as a way to do useful historical research.

A portion of the exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust,” which shows how the Depression, isolationism, xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism shaped responses to Nazism and the Holocaust. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
DiSabato and Gervais took their students to the Carnegie Library to examine local newspapers of the time period, and also worked with Martha Berg, the archivist at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Berg introduced them to the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, an online digitalized collection of more than 100 years of local Jewish newspapers, including the Jewish Criterion (1895-1962), the American Jewish Outlook (1934-1962), the Jewish Chronicle (1962-2010) and the Y-JCC series (1926-1975).

The students found relevant articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Jewish Criterion and the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph.

One interesting facet of the project, said Berg, was having the students compare what information was available to the Jewish community via the Jewish press to what was available to the general community during World War II.

Many newspaper articles exposing what the Nazis were doing to the Jews of Europe were “not in the Post-Gazette, but they were in the Jewish Criterion,” said Gervais.

For example, students looking for information about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising “struggled to find that information in mainstream papers, but did find information about that in the Pittsburgh Newspaper Project,” he explained.

The students discovered that Pittsburghers had a lot of information about the encroaching Nazi threat in the years leading up to the war, including the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, which “was reported on quite a bit,” and the “Jewish boycott in 1933, which predates the war by six years,” Gervais said.

A photo from June 4, 1939, showing children looking at the Statue of Liberty, is part of the “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit. The exhibit shows how isolationism and xenophobia, among other things shaped responses to Nazism and the Holocaust. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, gift of Julius Wald)
Given evidence that Pittsburghers knew what was going on — if not what was coming — the question arises as to “how local leaders responded,” said Gervais.

“In the Jewish papers there were a lot more editorials and op-eds,” he said. “In the Post-Gazette, there was simply a lot of reporting.”

In the Criterion, Gervais added, the students found evidence of “a lot of people raising money and trying to rescue Jews and help them get out.”

In addition to learning research skills, the project provided a means for the students “to do real world work,” said DiSabato. “They are asked to be citizen historians and engage in content that is significant.”

“It’s tough to get students to do history,” said Gervais. “This offers a unique way to study history out of the box.”

Winchester Thurston has a large Jewish student population, according to DiSabato, and some of those students were “emotionally impacted when they read the literature and were looking at the photos.”

The “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit aims to show how the Depression, among other factors, prevented Americans from focusing on the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust. This photo shows a group out of men outside a soup kitchen in Chicago in 1931. (Photo courtesy of National Archives at College Park)
The project also had a significant impact on those students who are not Jewish, as well as those who are several generations removed from World War II, said Berg.

“I think one of the most important things I see in this project is that for students whose grandparents may not have been born before the Holocaust, there is no personal connection,” she said. “But reading contemporary articles has a different kind of impact. It’s a great project for kids who don’t have a personal connection to the Holocaust.”

So far, Winchester Thurston is the only school in Pittsburgh that has participated in the “History Unfolded” project, according to Eric Schmalz, the USHMM Citizen History community manager. More than 9,400 people have registered to participate in the project, including 1,855 teachers from more than 100 schools. Articles have been submitted by more than 2,600 different registrants from across the country.

The project was initiated in 2015 and launched a year later, with an eye toward making the information useful to the museum’s exhibition curators for “Americans and the Holocaust.”

With thousands of articles so far uploaded, Schmalz said he “believes we are scratching the surface of what’s out there.”

“This is exciting and remarkable to us, the amount of information reported within and without the Jewish press,” he continued.

While it is a common belief that when news of the Holocaust was reported, it was buried in the back of the paper, “there were plenty of reports on Page 1,” according to Schmalz.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board in 1944 to rescue the Jews of Europe and other “victims of enemy persecution.” This photo shows the third meeting of the Board of Directors of the War Refugee Board in the office of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Pictured from left to right are: Cordell Hull, Henry Morgenthau, Henry L. Stimson, and John Pehle, Executive Director. (Photo courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)
One of the “exciting” aspects of the project, he said, is “to see the response of the community.”

“We came across an article in the Jewish Criterion about Pittsburgh universities and institutions that got together to protest the Nazi burning of books,” he said, adding that the 1933 article “shows that not only were people in Pittsburgh aware of Nazi atrocities, but that they were protesting them.”

Schmalz also finds letters to the editor informative.

“There are particular cases of individuals doing protests and people trying to sponsor refugees into the country,” he added. “There are college papers showing that people were trying to raise money for refugees.”

The “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit includes a large interactive wall map with at least one article from every state, including an article from the Pittsburgh Press about the 1933 Jewish boycott.

The “History Unfolded” project will continue for another three years, according to Schmalz, and the information it unearths will be shared with scholars and educators. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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