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USF class poses a question: What did people know about the Holocaust in real time?

By Claire McNeill
DIRK SHADD | Times
Julio Lopez reads through newspaper archives, examining what Floridians knew about the Holocaust while it was unfolding. He concluded: “The Holocaust was always buried as a side note.”

TAMPA — Sifting through Google's black-and-white newspaper archives after class one day, Rachel Haniff paused on a story she hadn't heard before. There was something about it she recognized.

It was 1939. The ocean liner St. Louis approached Miami, so close its passengers — nearly 1,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany — could see the city lights. But American distrust of immigrants had reached a fever pitch, and the refugees were forced to turn back. More than 250 died during the Holocaust.

Americans had known, then, about the crisis unfolding halfway across the world, and still they had rejected foreigners desperate for survival. Haniff felt herself getting emotional.

"It was like looking in a mirror," she said.

Now a graduate student in the University of South Florida College of Education, Haniff couldn't help but draw modern-day parallels to the reports in the 1939 Sarasota Herald-Tribune. And she couldn't help but think about her own story. Wounded in a targeted shooting as a teenager, Haniff fled her home in the South American republic of Suriname and came to the United States. Now 29, she's studying to become a world history teacher.

She and 13 other grad students have been poring over 1930s and 1940s newspaper coverage, looking to understand what Floridians knew about the Holocaust while it was unfolding. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will use their findings in a 2018 exhibit examining American newspaper coverage of the genocide.

For these current and future teachers, the exercise offered lessons about scrutinizing media and sifting through forgotten bits of history, both practices to teach their own students. And most came away with a deeper lesson about history, a reminder that stories repeat themselves.

"Teachers need to link events that are happening now to the past in order to be successful in the classroom," Haniff said. "You need to show that things that have happened in the past are a reflection of what will happen in the future."

In 1933 editions of the St. Petersburg Times, brief articles about anti-Semitism appeared amid reports on school reform, economic recovery and other daily minutiae. About 87 percent of local families got the Sunday Times, a statistic that disappointed student Arren Swift, a history teacher at Seminole High School. It meant the public had been aware of the horrors.

"People then were like people now," he said. "We all want to get food on the table. We're all preoccupied with our jobs. I think it was easy for people to put this out of their minds."

Teaching the Holocaust can be a fraught exercise, full of emotional tripwires. USF's education school has offered a course on teaching the Holocaust before, but this assignment was a first.

"There's never been such a large-scale, crowdsourced approach to looking at newspapers as a source of information for what people knew about the Holocaust while it was going on," said professor Michael Berson, who brought the project to the university.

Working with the source material is difficult, for one. Newspapers from that era haven't all been preserved. Those that weren't used as fish wrapping aren't often digitized or searchable.

"Everyday newspapers would have been discarded," Berson said. "So the average, everyday story has been lost."

He sent his class searching through microfilm and Google news archives to see how many of those stories they could find.

"I think they're coming to the realization that people did know about this event," Berson said.

In the Herald-Tribune, student Ryan Tarbett found that flashy war stories overshadowed news of the atrocities suffered by Jews, which appeared in small briefs, folded into the fabric of the everyday. Julio Lopez, looking at the Miami Herald, blanched at photos of children in Jewish ghettoes next to dog race results and ads for luxury rentals.

"Why this juxtaposition? What does it say?" Lopez said. "The Holocaust was always buried as a side note."

Several students compared the coverage to that of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, with its now-famous image of a shell-shocked boy coated in ash after a bombing in the city of Aleppo.

"It's kind of freaky how much it parallels today," Tarbett said.

Students said they want to apply the research methods to their classrooms, encouraging pupils to question the priorities and biases of the media they consume.

Studying the voyage of the St. Louis, Haniff found in-depth articles in a Jewish publication, but a lack of empathy in the coverage by the Herald-Tribune.

"They were acting like the refugees on the ship were criminals," she said. "Now, when you look on Fox (News), there's a lack of empathy for what's really occurring. What do you really care about when you see that boy in the news?"

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.