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WHY I TEACH THIS COURSE: Professor Laurel Leff’s “America and the Holocaust”

Like much of my generation, I was taught growing up in the 1960s that Americans didn’t know about the Holocaust while it was happening. Maybe some rumors reached the United States, the conventional wisdom went, but Americans didn’t know — and couldn’t have known — that millions of Jews were being murdered in a systematic campaign to annihilate them.

Thirty years later, as a newspaper editor, I stumbled across two books published in the 1980s that made me realize how wrong I was. The Abandonment of the Jews, by David Wyman, and Beyond Belief, by Deborah Lipstadt, made clear that the American government, American Jewish groups, and American journalists knew quite a lot about the Holocaust as it was taking place. Much of that information found its way into the American press, though almost all the articles were inside the newspapers rather than on the front page.

This led me to two questions: First, if so many news stories about the Holocaust had in fact been published in the mainstream American press, how could I be taught just two decades later that Americans didn’t know? Second, if so much information was available, why did American journalists not consider the Holocaust to be an important enough story to put on the front page?

I decided to become an academic at least partially to try to answer those questions. Since I joined the Northeastern faculty in 1996, I have devoted most of my research efforts to exploring Americans’ contemporaneous understanding of the Holocaust. These efforts have led to a book, Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, as well as many journal articles and a book chapter.

Until this fall, however, I have never had the chance to teach a course on my scholarly passion, as my position in the School of Journalism did not lend itself to teaching the topic. Jewish Studies, however, recently gave me the opportunity, and this fall I have been teaching “America and the Holocaust,” a course cross-listed in History and Jewish Studies.

The first half of the course focuses on Americans’ knowledge and actions prior to and during the Holocaust. We start at the beginning of the 20th century, exploring American anti-Semitism and the American reaction to the Armenian genocide, and proceed through the pre-war period, including the rise of Nazism and resulting American immigration and isolationist policies. It next considers Americans’ knowledge of European events as the extermination campaign unfolded and fights ensued over rescue possibilities. The second half of the course focuses on the Holocaust’s lasting impact on policy and culture. We examine the immediate post-war period and such critical events as the Eichmann trial and the Six Day War, as well as exploring how American popular culture both reflected and affected Americans’ understanding of the extermination of European Jewry. We end by considering how the Holocaust’s legacy has shaped subsequent American responses to genocide.

One of the best parts of teaching this course has been exposing students to primary sources. Students do research using oral histories of German Jewish refugees who came to the United States between 1937 and 1941. They chronicle contemporaneous news stories in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, African-American newspapers, and other publications. They explore the Yizkhor books Jews living in the United States assembled to memorialize the Central and Eastern European communities from which they came that had been decimated. Finally, they analyze works of art for what they reveal about how the Holocaust was understood at the time of their creation, as well as for their impact on future understanding.

In tracing Americans’ role throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, my course is unusual. Most courses on America and the Holocaust start at the end of World War II and emphasize the ways the Holocaust influenced American culture in the postwar world. To me, the comparison between what Americans knew at the time and what they chose to remember is an essential part of understanding the Holocaust’s role in American life. I suspect most professors’ postwar emphasis is based upon the assumption that there isn’t much to teach because not much was known during the war. The myths I grew up with have yet to die. I teach this course to help hasten the day that they will.

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Haverim Newsletter Fall 2014