When researcher Mike Levy wanted to find out about local responses to refugees in the period leading up to the Holocaust, he discovered newspaper articles to be a fruitful resource. In this week’s blog, he shares his experiences of working with news archives in our second post dedicated to teaching local stories.

More on Teaching Local Stories: Using testimony in Austria.

“A light bulb moment came after a talk I gave to educators working, like me, for the Holocaust Education Trust.”

I showed examples of local newspaper coverage of the aftermath of the ‘November Pogroms’ or ‘Kristallnacht’. The well-organised assault on the Jews of the Reich was headline news not only in the national but also the local press. The example I showed was the front page of the Cambridge Daily News (a British newspaper from the region of Cambridgeshire) for 12 November 1938.  As the good folk of Cambridge ate their breakfast that morning, their toast and jam may have been especially difficult to swallow. ‘More German Restrictions on Jews’ screamed the headline. The story dominated front pages for the next few days and letters to the editor streamed in to show the dismay, outrage, and willingness to help expressed by local people. They were sent from addresses that today’s school students living in the area would recognise given that the street plan of Harwich hasn’t changed much since 1938.

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Cambridge Daily News. Permission for image kindly granted by Cambridge Central Library.

One of the educators in my audience, gave out an astonished gasp:

“Of course, why have I never thought of that – using local papers really brings the big international stories home.”

It was his light bulb moment but also to some extent mine: I had never thought that others would find using such resources to be such a Eureka moment.

Local newspapers can really bring home events such as the rise of the Nazis, the persecution of the Jews, and the arrival of adult and child refugees from far away into our neighbourhood. It is what I have called The Holocaust on our Doorstep”. The consequences of the Nazi policies toward the Jews had, of course, far reaching effects beyond the occupied countries. In Britain, for example, Kindertransport refugees and others were scattered in foster homes, hostels, working farms and factories across the islands; internment of ‘enemy aliens’ involved the round-up of Reich Jews from every location; volunteer refugee committees (at least 200) were in operation throughout the UK throughout the war years and beyond.

Find out more: Responses to Jewish refugees in the UK

All this was news and news that was reported at a local, as well as a national, level. It was news involving named individuals and organisations who were caught up in the fate of exiled Jews. These names were duly reported in ‘local rags’ as far afield as Belfast, Dundee, Plymouth and Harwich.

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The Harwich and Manningtree Standard, 1938

In 2015 I ran a school project on the Kindertransportees who were housed at a holiday camp in the resort of Dovercourt near the port of Harwich. From December 1938 to March 1939, at least 1000 Jewish and other ‘non Aryan’ children were housed in the camp’s chalets. My project with the Harwich and Dovercourt High School involved digging into local archives, tracing eyewitnesses and former refugees. There are very few documents from the time (beyond some recently released in the National Archives in London). At one point in the six-month project (supported by the National Lottery Fund), we had the idea to see what the local newspaper reported about Dovercourt camp. After a bit of digging, a phone call to the offices of the Harwich and Manningtree Standard revealed a potential information gold mine.

Yes they had back copies of their 1938-39 editions but only in original form and not digitalized. Examining the old newspapers would entail a visit to their offices in Clacton-on-Sea. There, two huge bound copies of the faded and somewhat torn newspapers were brought to me. It was clear that few people had looked at the back copies (although the Harwich Society had been through some of the editions). A careful examination of every edition from December 2 1938 (the first arrivals) to the 31 March 1939 (the closure of the camp) threw up at least 20 articles on the subject.

Most importantly long-forgotten names and addresses were mentioned – some of them resonated with the secondary school children I had brought to the archives with me in 2015. One student was sure that a helper mentioned at the camp was his great uncle, and one discovery led to the daughter of the mayor of Harwich, who had visited the Jewish children several times. There was also a most valuable and full account of a BBC radio documentary made in late December 1938, and a long feature on the farewell party in late March 1939 when 200 Jewish boys were bade farewell by the camp managers and town dignitaries. The youngsters involved in this research really felt that they were uncovering a lost history – as indeed they were. They felt a real pride in being involved and were excited that this story of people long ago but not far away, had something to do with them.

Many local newspapers have now been digitalized (though sadly, not the Harwich ones) and can be accessed via the British Newspaper Archive (which has an excellent keyword search facility). Though this is a subscription service, it is well worth the money but may also be available free via your local library even if you are outside of the UK. Our local history library in Cambridge has microfiche copies of local newspapers (some going back over 200 years) as well as the original ‘hard copies’. Perhaps yours has this too. Although this post has detailed my experience with newspapers in the UK specifically, similar archives elsewhere could open up rich avenues for research across the world providing us with an extensive, global map of reactions to refugees of the time. Other examples include the US Library Congress.

Once you look at the way local newspapers dealt with the Holocaust and its impact on the area, you too may have that light bulb moment.

  • Does your local library or any of the digitalized collections online have any newspapers related to your area published between 1933 and 1945?
  • How could you make ‘the Holocaust on our doorstep’ relevant to local school students?
  • What digital newspaper archives do you know that might help us to create an index of useful resources for exploring local responses from across the world?

We would love to hear your experience on this topic. Please leave comments below or join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook.

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Mike Levy is a freelance Holocaust educator, playwright, journalist, history project leader and is now researching for a PhD on the role of the Cambridge Refugee Committee 1938-48. He is in the process of setting up a 1930s refugee study group in Cambridge and will shortly be working on an A-Z Gazeteer on the subject of local connections to the Holocaust. www.keystage.org