AMES, Iowa – Reading news reports about the Holocaust in the pages of a hometown or local paper is a powerful way for people to connect with that period in history. That is why Jeremy Best encourages his students and the public to visit local libraries and historical societies in search of these stories.
The assistant professor of history at Iowa State University feels it is so important, he created a research assignment requiring students to find news coverage about the Holocaust and share the stories with the Holocaust Museum’s History Unfolded project. History Unfolded relies on students, teachers and history buffs to help build its online archive of local news related to 34 Holocaust-era events.
Contributing to the archive makes the assignment even more meaningful for students, Best said. It also provided a natural opportunity to get the community involved. Best is working with the Ames Public Library and the Ames Historical Society to organize an interactive event for community members who want to assist with the research. It starts at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, April 9, at the library.
“History often gets a bum rap. There’s a misconception that history doesn’t tell the everyday stories; it’s just facts, data and uninteresting stories about the most important people,” Best said. “These projects help break down those misconceptions. People see history is about connecting with events of the past and understanding those events with empathy and a critical eye.”
This is the second year for the event. Unlike the on-campus class, which allows students to utilize a variety of resources for their research, participants at the interactive event search a digital repository of Iowa newspapers, maintained by Rod Library at the University of Northern Iowa.
Coverage does exist
Through his work on campus and in the community, Best finds people are surprised to learn Iowa papers covered the Holocaust. Stories generally came from wire services such as the Associated Press. Seeing the coverage in the context of everyday life, as well as where the paper placed the story and how it was written, is an important lesson for everyone, Best said.
“To see the coverage from 1943, you recognize it is not so simple to say that Americans didn’t know or couldn’t have known what was happening during the Holocaust,” he said. “When participants in these sorts of projects are confronted with the historical evidence, it forces Americans to reckon with the historical imperfections of the country. Americans had the information to know about the Holocaust. This forces participants to ask why our parents’ and grandparents’ generations did so little to help the Jews of Europe.”
Best says that is the beauty of the History Unfolded project. It not only encourages people to discover what is out there, but also provides a resource for others, including academics and researchers, who want to learn more about the news events cataloged in the archive.
Value of libraries, historical societies
As a historian, Best is concerned that there are fewer and fewer resources for libraries and historical societies. His goal is to not only give students and the public an opportunity to connect with history, but also show them the value of these public institutions.
The response from students in his class on campus, which he teaches each fall, shows his work is paying off. In a blog post for History Unfolded, Best described how students traveled to public libraries in Clarion and Dubuque, as well the State Historical Society of Iowa, uncovering stories about Charles Lindbergh’s 1941 speech in Des Moines.
Concerned that students may opt to stay on campus to do their research, Best offers extra credit as an incentive to get students to travel to libraries across the state and search through microfilm or digitized newspaper files. Best says he generally finds his concerns to be unfounded as the majority, if not all students, conduct their research off campus.
“This project brings together these bedrock institutions of the work we do as historians. It brings people into contact with these institutions and the resources they offer,” Best said. “It is also a reminder that Holocaust education is important and there’s room for more of it in Iowa.”