Educators teaching history courses with increasingly demanding schedules may struggle to find time to relate core curricular knowledge to current events, including today’s refugee crisis. In addition, students in language arts and journalism classes may bemoan as “busy-work” assignments they don’t view as connected to their world. How can instructors prepare students in an engaging way without sacrificing material they need to teach year in and year out? The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust project offers students an opportunity to do real historical research, make connections between their local communities and Holocaust-era events in Europe, and contribute to future scholarship through a national effort. In the process, students as “citizen historians” develop critical thinking and analytical skills. The historical context students gain by looking at the refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s will help them better frame the issues in ongoing debates and discussions today.

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Students in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Bringing the Lessons Home program research articles for History Unfolded at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC. Photographer: Joel Mason-Gaines

History Unfolded is essentially the large-scale implementation of Mike Levy’s idea to have teachers and students investigate historical coverage of the Holocaust. In the case of History Unfolded, the scope is bound to newspapers published in the United States. The project is helping to amass the largest known database of US newspaper coverage on the Holocaust. Information gathered through History Unfolded has been incorporated into several sections of the Museum’s special exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust (Dr. Daniel Greene wrote about this exhibition in his recent Seeking Protection blog post). Additionally, article findings from the project have been featured in public programs, teacher seminars, and as part of the Museum’s social media outreach efforts. Thus, not only is the database of materials growing, but a variety of audiences– from students to teachers to the general public– can access and are benefiting from the discoveries as well. 

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Students at Mounds Park Academy in Minnesota under teacher Katie Murr (above) uploaded this article, one of several dozen submissions featured in the Museum’s Americans and the Holocaust special exhibition. Photographer: Joel Mason-Gaines

The collection of new data will continue through spring 2021, at which point the Museum plans to share the project’s metadata with Holocaust historians and digital humanities scholars. The Museum needs participation from as many students and lifelong learner citizen historians as possible to help create a comprehensive data set.

Getting Started

“I found searching through the microfilm papers very enjoyable, despite being tedious…We must remember that when experiencing history in real time, we do not simply jump from major historical event to major historical event; 90% of our lives are lived experiencing a normal, mundane life, and these events are the things which define our time at that given moment. It is only in retrospect that we can see the things which defined our time, things which at the time may not have seemed important.” –Student in Professor Sarah Zarrow’s History of the Holocaust course at Western Washington University

How can you use History Unfolded in your classroom? First, you will want to spend time preparing students to effectively read newspapers from the time period. The History Unfolded website provides:

Then, you should choose topic(s) to focus your students’ research. A number of our project’s research events deal with the topic of refugees. In general, you can take the project in any direction you wish. Our teacher step-by-step guide is the best place to begin. Looking for particular lesson ideas related to refugees? Here are two ideas you could implement.

1. History Unfolded as a way to discuss popular debates over whether to accept refugees to a nation

Germany’s territorial expansion in Europe and increased persecution against Jews in 1938, including the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms, intensified a growing refugee crisis. Most Americans, however, were leery of becoming involved in European affairs. The mood of the country was strongly isolationist and anti-immigrant. It was in this context that Democratic senator Robert Wagner and Republican representative Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill to bring German child refugees to the United States: the Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill,

In this case study, students look at debates about whether to approve the Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill, a measure in Congress that proposed admitting 20,000 German refugee children to enter the United States over two years (1939-1940) outside the existing restrictive immigration quotas in place in the United States at the time. This lesson focuses primarily on reactions by newspaper staff and readers to the proposed bill, which died in the Senate Immigration Committee during the first week of July 1939. The exercise helps students better understand the various factors that influenced popular reactions to the Wagner-Rogers Bill and inform their understanding of how journalism and public opinion shape policy decisions.

A full lesson plan for this activity can be found here.

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Citizen historians found dozens of letters to the editor about the Wagner-Rogers bill. The curator of Americans and the Holocaust chose selections to display on the walls in the special exhibition (above left on blue panels). Photographer: Joel Mason-Gaines

2. History Unfolded as a means to discuss official government policy in times of refugee crisis

In 1944, at the urging of the United States Treasury Department, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9417, establishing the War Refugee Board. This moment marked the first and only time the US government founded a government agency to save the lives of non-Americans being murdered by a wartime enemy.

One of the Board’s actions was to bring nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were Jewish, to Fort Ontario in upstate New York. This was the only time during World War II that the US government agreed to bypass immigration laws to allow a group of refugees to reach the United States. Instead of welcoming them as immigrants, however, the refugees were designated as “guests of the President.” They were held behind barbed-wire fences at the “Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter” and were informed that they would be returned to Europe when the war ended.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum needs help to better understand the nature of reporting on these events.

Directions for educators: Ask students to investigate local newspaper reporting on the sheltering of refugees in Oswego, New York, in June, 1944. Have students upload relevant article findings to the History Unfolded website. (See steps for how to do that here.) A shorter version of this activity could involve assigning students to analyze existing research findings on FDR Sheltering Refugees in Oswego, New York. Then, discuss with students what they found, did not find, and learned.

Possible conversations include:

  •      Did local newspapers report on the sheltering of refugees at Fort Ontario in the summer of 1944?
  •      If there was any reporting, was it prominent? How would you know?
  •      What other reports did you find in the newspaper issues you consulted?
  •      What does this historical event indicate about Americans’ awareness of the Holocaust and responses to it?

Here is an example of a photograph Mark G., a student at NC State University, found of refugees on the way to Fort Ontario. Mark made the discovery in the September 6, 1944 issue of The Sylva Herald and Ruralite, a small town newspaper only a few hours from his university. His entry is the first article we received from this newspaper and is now part of the History Unfolded database.

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Screenshot of Mark G.’s published article submission data on the History Unfolded website, available for anyone with internet access to see. USHMM

*A similar exercise on this topic could be done with the project’s event module on the “Truman Directive”.

Connections to Today

History Unfolded provides opportunities for students to study the past and to raise questions about today. Some teachers and students choose to address the connection directly, as four high school seniors did in Minnesota. You can read about how they learned about the refugee crisis of the 1930s and then applied their knowledge here.

History Unfolded is a way for students to do real historical research using primary resources in a local context. In the process, citizen historians gain a better understanding of how to think like historians. It’s been an exciting opportunity for staff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to reach new audiences and work with libraries, archives, and schools in new ways.

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Eric Schmalz is the citizen history community manager for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded project. Launched in 2015, History Unfolded is the first project in a multiyear initiative Americans and the Holocaust which explores what information Americans had access to about the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as how Americans in all strata of society responded.