For the past two years, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has embarked on an effort to engage citizen historians and students throughout the country with a crowdsourcing project called “History Unfolded,” which seeks to explain how American newspapers reported on events surrounding the Holocaust. Local news outlets, like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, have contributed to this new resource and are re-publishing articles revealing what information was available to Americans about the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Jews.
To date, nearly 2,500 people from across the country have contributed to “History Unfolded”, which now features more than 15,500 article clippings. Selections from the “History Unfolded” findings are being woven into a special exhibition that opened April 23, coinciding with the Museum’s 25th anniversary.
The Post-Gazette will be highlighting 20 articles from our archives that ran between March 1933 and April 1945. These pieces include newswire stories and opinion pieces that touch on wartime political conflicts and battles over how to handle the massive wave of displaced refugees. The Holocaust Museum’s research updates a longstanding assumption that all Americans were unaware of the genocide taking place until the war had ended. “History Unfolded” challenges beliefs about contemporary understanding of those tragedies and speaks to the media’s role in shaping public knowledge.
This page will be updated with new archival materials. You can also keep up with these updates by following The Digs on Instagram (@digspgh), where we will be sharing materials through posts and Stories.
The Dachau prison camp opens
The Dachau concentration camp opened on March 22, 1933, holding about 4,800 prisoners during its first year. The Nazis would not begin to open dedicated extermination centers until the war’s 1939 outbreak, but the Dachau prison camp served as a model for what was to come. Under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, SS police trained at the camp and created organizational systems that would drive Germany’s genocide of European Jews.
Himmler was never subtle about the camp’s purpose, openly acknowledging that it was built to house the Nazis’ political enemies. Chief among them were communists and labor organizers, groups Himmler claimed were sowing unrest across Germany. Following the 1935 passage of the Nuremberg Laws, those prisoners were joined by religious minorities, homosexuals and many other groups targeted by institutionalized persecution.
Prisoners underwent horrible medical experimentation and were often worked to death or starved. Mass executions, the smell of cremated corpses and abject misery were hallmarks of Dachau for its 12 years of operation. Camp records show that 206,206 prisoners moved through Dachau’s gates, which were emblazoned with the hollow words “Work makes one free.” Nearly 32,000 died across its 100 sub-camps, according to internal Nazi reports.
Included in the documents below is the initial coverage of Dachau’s opening. Page 1 shows the Post-Gazette’s full foreign affairs page from March 20, 1933, while page 2 shows that day’s brief article covering the German government’s announcement. Also included is an extensive April 7, 1933, analysis by H.E. Knickerbocker, one of the first American reporters to cover the Nazis’ pre-World War II political persecution.
“Among the 40,000 [people arrested so far] are men from every political party except the National Socialist and perhaps the German Nationalist … Any outspoken, aggressive Republican, and many who were neither outspoken nor aggressive, were liable to visitation,” Knickerbocker wrote.
“The German people are receiving their hazing now. They must be taught to obey, unquestioningly, uncritically. They must again become a soldier folk.”
Hitler launches national boycott of Jewish businesses
International human rights groups had been critical of the Nazi regime from the moment Hitler rose to power, but their condemnation found a mass audience in March 1933. That month, the SA paramilitary group — more commonly known as “Storm Troopers” or “Brownshirts” — launched a violent campaign against the nation’s Jewish businesses. Salesmen and lawyers were beaten and publicly humiliated as local police unsuccessfully tried to defend them. Organizations around the world called for boycotts of German goods, but Nazi leaders framed these condemnations as the product of Jewish influence. They countered with a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses, arguing that Jews had manipulated anti-German news coverage and harmed the German public’s interest.
“Drastic legal proceedings will be undertaken against the atrocity campaign which has been unloosed in America and England by interested Jewish circles against the new German regime,” Germany’s Minister of Propoganda Joseph Goebbels said in an announcement. “A blow shall be struck at the intellectual movers and beneficiaries of these treasonable machinations, most of whom are Jews of German origin.”
The Nazi boycott began April 1, 1933, and lasted for one day. Jewish businesses had antisemitic slurs and Stars of David painted on their storefronts. SA members sang anti-Jewish songs while others assaulted people in the streets. Despite its short length, the boycott marked the beginning of a nationwide campaign by the Nazi party against the entire German Jewish population. A week later, on April 7, 1933, the German government enacted the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which banned non-Aryans from civil service jobs.
Nationwide book burning begins as international groups protest
Nazi efforts to separate Jews from the rest of German society included state censorship of cultural institutions, and Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels found passionate supporters among German university students. These students organized the National Socialist German Students’ League and set about purging “anti-German” thought from academia. The group announced on April 6, 1933, that members would hold a nationwide book burning on May 10, 1933, calling for the works of Jews, political theorists and “corrupting foreign influences” to undergo a “cleanse” by fire.
Upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books filled bonfires while attendees participated in celebratory songs. Goebbels joined the Berlin event and broadcast his speech nationally, declaring to the 40,000 attendees that “the era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.”
Once the date of the burning was announced, opponents of the Nazis planned counter-demonstrations around the world to denounce the regime’s assault on free thought. More than 80,000 people marched through the streets of New York City for six hours of protesting, while smaller groups packed performance halls and parks across the United States. In Pittsburgh, 2,000 people filled the Carnegie Music Hall to watch as 100 Jewish students from the city’s universities each presented an English translation of a targeted work to Carnegie Library representatives.
“We condemn this action as a disgraceful and wicked manifestation of religious and racial hatred, bringing contempt upon the people who do it and shame upon the government who permits it to be done,” said a resolution written by Rabbi Herman Hailperin and read by Samuel Harden Church, president of the Carnegie Institute. “In the name of the scholarship of the world we denounce it as an unpardonable atrocity against the welfare of the human race.”
Journalist Dorothy Thompson is expelled from Germany
As humanitarian criticism of their oppressive policies grew during the mid-1930s, Nazi leaders sought total control of German information. Hitler’s regime relied on propaganda and state censorship from its first acquisition of power, and state authorities closely monitored what foreign correspondents were sending home. A writer could face imprisonment and violence for describing the violations of civil liberties taking place in Europe.
Dorothy Thompson, an influential reporter who served as the New York Post’s Berlin bureau chief, was the first American expelled from Germany for covering these actions. She had interviewed Hitler in 1931 and turned the experience into a 1932 book titled “I Saw Hitler.” It featured sharp criticism of the Nazi leader, warning of how dangerous he would be as German Chancellor. In 1934, a year after Hitler took control, the German government requested Thompson leave the country.
“Chancellor Hitler is no longer a man, he is a religion,” Thompson wrote upon her arrival in Paris. “Germany is a charming country, but it is becoming the most comfortable and most hygienic prison in the world.”
Nuremberg Laws go into effect
A central element of Nazi plans to segregate Jews involved redefining what “Jewishness” meant. One of the first legal actions toward that end came in a Sept. 15, 1935, decree known as the Nuremberg Race Laws. These laws would serve as the Nazis’ foundation for legal persecution of Jews.
Prior to the Nuremburg Laws, “Jews” were solely defined as people who practiced the Jewish religion. The Nazi rules reframed Jewishness as a racial designation passed on through blood. People who had Jewish grandparents now qualified as Jewish, regardless of their personal affiliation. Equipped with this expanded target pool, the Nazis stripped all Jews of their German citizenship and banned Jewish-Aryan marriages.
A supplemental decree, delivered two months later, extended the prohibition to marriage or sexual relations between “those of German or related blood” and Roma, black people or their children.
Olympic boycott fails
The 1936 Summer Olympics was an international coming out party for the Nazi regime. In 1931, two years before the Nazis came to power, the International Olympic Committee selected Berlin as the host city. But as reports of Jewish persecution flowed out of Germany, the Nazis’ critics began organizing support for an international Olympic boycott.
American Olympic Committee leaders responded to mounting pressure by announcing an inspection of German facilities. Though Nazi handlers agreed, they ensured the 1934 trip avoided anti-party elements. Boycott proponents argued that Germany’s antisemitic policies violated Olympic rules, but inspectors insisted that they found no evidence of danger.
The Amateur Athletic Union, which represented members of the U.S. Olympic team, announced a December 1935 vote to decide whether American athletes would compete in Berlin. Ahead of the vote, AOC president Avery Brundage argued that politics had no place in sport and later called the boycott effort part of a “Jewish-Communist” conspiracy. His lobbying paid off when the AAU voted in favor of participation by a slim margin.
“In a clash of principles, the foes are not conquered,” said Samuel MacCabee, the leader of a group pushing to move the Games from Berlin. “The very close vote is a mandate to continue the fight to prove that sportsmanship is bigger than sport.”
Hitler invades Austria
Adolf Hitler had hopes of uniting Germany and Austria long before he became German Chancellor, arguing in his 1925 autobiography that the nations should form one “German Motherland” by any means necessary.
Though the Nazis’ rise in Germany brought on a surge of Austrian nationalism due to Hitler’s Austrian heritage, the Austrian Nazi Party failed to win any governmental seats in the 1930 general election. The following eight years were marked by economic stagnation and violent clashes between political groups. By 1938, Austrian Nazis were conspiring to overthrow Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg and answer Hitler’s call by force.
Schuschnigg buckled under pressure from these partisans, as well as Hitler himself, on March 8. He scheduled a national vote on German annexation of Austria for April and resigned three days later. In his final address, he pleaded with Austrian forces not to resist a German invasion the following day.
Hitler and his troops were met by cheering crowds as they marched across the border on March 12, with many households flying Nazi flags from their windows. Hitler declared Austria a federal state of Germany and appointed a new government later that day. Jews and Roma were banned from the retroactive annexation vote, which Nazi officials manipulated to show 99 percent support for joining Germany.
Austria’s population was estimated as being 4 percent Jewish in April 1938, accounting for about 192,000 people. By December 1939, that number had dropped to 57,000 as a result of executions and mass flight.
Nations gather in Evian to address refugee crisis
Prior to the 1941 creation of extermination camps, the Nazis planned to put so much legal and social pressure on German Jews that they would flee the country. The jailing of perceived dissidents and policies like the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of citizenship, were designed to tear apart families and cut Jews off from the rest of society.
The strategy proved effective. In 1933, there was an estimated 600,000 Jews living in Germany; by 1938, one in four had fled. Adolf Hitler’s rise had also resulted in outbursts of antisemetism in other European countries, such as Poland and Romania. These countries enacted anti-Jewish laws of their own, contributing to the number of displaced people fleeing persecution. Once Germany annexed Austria, another 200,000 Jews found themselves in search of asylum.
Regardless of their origins, Jewish refugees had few asylum options once they left. Many countries, including the United States, had enacted immigration restrictions that limited the influx of racial and ethnic minorities. Ships of sick and hungry refugees were pulling into ports around the world, only to be turned away or left full.
At the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, representatives from 32 countries agreed to gather at Evian, a French resort on Lake Geneva. For nine days beginning July 6, 1938, the delegates traded explanations for why their countries would not host the incoming refugees, and it was clear that few had ever intended to provide additional support. American officials even made a secret agreement with the British to hide the fact that the U.S. had not fulfilled its immigration quota. In exchange, the Americans did not voice support for settling Jews in British Palestine, where many refugees had already attempted to settle.
The conference ultimately accomplished very little. Only Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, both among the smallest nations present, accepted additional refugees. Members did agree to create the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, but the organization received nearly no funding. It essentially ended operations by the following year.
A young Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan purchased a revolver on November 7, 1938. Four days prior, Grynszpan had received word that his family, along with 8,000 other Jews deported from Germany, were trapped at the Polish border and had been stripped of their possessions. Angered by the antisemetic persecutions rippling across Europe, Grynszpan travelled to the German embassy in Paris and shot diplomat Ernst vom Rath twice, killing him.
Von Rath’s assassination sparked one of the Nazis’ most infamous and brutal pograms. German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and other Nazi leaders issued instructions to local party offices, directing them to terrorize Jews across the Reich. The Nazis burned more than 250 synagogues and looted an estimated 7,000 Jewish businesses. Trains carried an estimated 30,000 German Jewish men to concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. Dozens died at the hands of SS troops and civilian mobs.
The two days of violence, which lasted from November 9-10, was named “Kristallnacht,” or “Night of Broken Glass.” The German government blamed Jews for the pogram, despite evidence that the Nazis were waiting for a pretext to enact the attacks. New laws stripped Jews of property in the weeks following Kristallnacht, and a wave of fleeing emigrants bolstered Europe’s refugee crisis.
Father Coughlin blames Jews for Nazi persecution
During the 1930s, radio dominated American entertainment and information distribution. At the top of the industry was Father Charles Coughlin, a Canadian priest assigned to a Catholic parish in Michigan. Coughlin built an audience of millions by delivering weekly sermons about faith and politics, including harsh criticism of the Roosevelt administration and Communists. He often invoked antisemitic and isolationist rhetoric and became notorious for programs sympathizing with Nazi persecutions.
The most infamous of Coughlin’s broadcasts aired on November 20, 1938. In it, Coughlin argued that the Nazis’ state-sponsored violence during Kristallnacht was a justified punishment for Jewish persecution of Christians. He claimed that “atheistic Jews” had helped the Soviet Union rob and murder millions Christians for years, calling Kristallnacht part of a “defense mechanism” against “anti-God” operators.
Coughlin’s comments drew criticism from religious leaders and politicians across the country. Though several radio stations stopped featuring his programs, Coughlin retained a large audience. He grew increasingly radical in repudiation of his critics, and he eventually became a vocal proponent of fascism as a solution to The Great Depression.
The Code Committee of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) responded to Coughlin’s use of inflammatory misinformation by enacting new limitations on the sale of radio time. Beginning October 1939, manuscripts had to be submitted in advance, and radio stations were threatened with the loss of licenses if they failed to comply.
“Plea for Refugee Children”
By 1939, the United States had done very little to address the refugee crisis consuming Europe. The 1938 Evian conference failed to manifest any international strategy, and its sole product, the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, had little authority. It received even less funding. The group was defunct after its first year, leaving behind no identifiable impact.
Reports of illness-ridden refugee ships and overcrowded ports drew demands that the U.S. alter immigration quotas limiting the influx of certain ethnic groups. Following Kristallnacht, Sen. Robert F. Wagner, D-N.Y., and Rep. Edith Rogers, R-Mass., proposed a bill to make it easier for refugee children to enter the country. The Wagner-Rogers bill, introduced to Congress on February 9, 1939, would have opened the door for 20,000 Jewish children to move from Nazi Germany.
The bill never reached a vote, due in large part to lobbying by Sen. Robert Reynolds, R-N.C., an isolationist and open anti-Semite. Reynolds and his allies amended the Wagner-Rogers Bill to count refugee children against the existing immigrant quota, nullifying the bill’s purpose. After several months of debate, the bill died in the Senate Immigration Committee during the first week of July 1939.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a letter to the editor by Isabel Currier on April 8, 1939, while the Wagner-Rogers bill was still under consideration. Currier, a member of an unidentified humanitarian group, used her piece to call for passage of the bill and criticized American inaction.
“[The refugee orphans] are too young to add to our unemployment problem. The proposed law requires that they have homes guaranteed before they are brought here, so they would not be added to the public social burden. They have a good heritage from parents who have valed conscience more than life under tyranny,” Currier wrote. “They never have known liberty, so they would come to America seeking the element of human equality which is the tradition of our national life.”
Cuba, U.S. reject ship carrying nearly 1000 refugees
Many Jewish refugees made sure to acquire necessary immigration documents before fleeing persecution in Europe. Those preparations did not always ensure easy passage, however. As the number of refugees grew, some countries altered requirements to make entry more difficult. Hundreds of people seeking asylum arrived in new countries, only to learn that their landing certificates were invalidated during transit.
Among the most infamous of these incidents involved the German transatlantic liner St. Louis, which arrived in Havana, Cuba on May 27, 1939. The ship carried 937 passengers, most of whom were Jews awaiting approval for United States visas, and they all held documents permitting them entry into Cuba. Unbeknownst to the passengers, Cuban President Frederico Laredo Bru had invalidated their landing certificates one week prior to their arrival. Fewer than 30 passengers met the new entry requirement; everyone else was forced to stay aboard the moored St. Louis for six days.
Bru demanded that the St. Louis to leave Havana on June 2, 1939. As it moved north, passengers attempted to contact U.S. officials, but their messages were ignored by the State Department. The St. Louis ultimately returned to Europe on June 17, 1939, landing in Antwerp, Belgium. Belgium, France and the Netherlands begrudgingly accepted many of the refugees after international news coverage brought negative attention on Cuba for turning them away.
The refugees’ ordeal accomplished little change. Nazi forces invaded all three of these countries less than a year later, and many of the former St. Louis passengers eventually died in extermination camps.
Charles Lindbergh makes “un-American” speech
The Great Depression was in its final stages by the start of 1940. That year, the United States government began rapid expansion of military spending and absorbed millions of unemployed men in the military draft. Many Americans remained wary of the new growth, fearing that it would lead the country into war with Germany. The isolationist movement found a powerful spokesperson in Charles Lindbergh, one of the world’s most famous people.
In 1927, Lindbergh became a hero to millions after completing the first ever solo transatlantic flight. Nicknamed “Lucky Lindy” by the American press, Lindbergh’s notoriety grew larger after the 1932 kidnapping and murder of his infant son. The incident was labeled the “Crime of the Century,” and intense coverage eventually drove Lindbergh to find shelter in Europe. He returned to the U.S. in 1939 and joined the isolationist America First Committee soon after its September 1940 creation.
Lindbergh’s advocacy for isolationism drew claims that he was a fascist sympathizer and antisemite, but his fame helped build a national platform for America First. The group organized 450 chapters and hosted sold-out events throughout 1940 and 1941, including several at Madison Square Garden. Though Lindbergh spoke at many of these gatherings, it was his speech at the September 11, 1941 event in Des Moines, Iowa that became notorious.
“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish [sic] and the Roosevelt Administration,” Lindbergh said to the crowd of 7,500. “They planned, first, to prepare the United States for foreign war under the guise of American defense; second, to involve us in the war, step-by-step, without our realization; third, to create a series of incidents that would force us into the actual conflict.”
He went on to decry Jews for “their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” The comments damaged the isolationist cause by steeping its message in antisemitic rhetoric, a charge America First consistently denied. Lindbergh’s reputation never recovered, and America First membership dropped.
“[Lindbergh’s speech was] the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation,” said Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate in 1940.