Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Eyes of the Time

If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the environment in which your ancestors lived, newspapers of the time offer considerable insight. For those with Jewish ancestry there is an opportunity through the end of June to access a number of Jewish historical newspapers. Proquest is offering this targeted access to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Anne Frank’s diaries.

For those fortunate enough to be from a larger city and possessing notable relatives, newspapers may offer more specific family information. I quickly ran through my family names to no avail and then resorted to the towns they were from. My Ukrainian and Polish towns brought up articles dating back to the 1880s that reported on the political impacts on the Jewish community.

In order to access this you will want to go to discovermorecorps.com and click the “Sign Up” button. Create an account and then go to database-of-the-month. Click on the words “free access” in the first sentence of the article.

Newspapers that are in the collection include:
• American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger (1857–1922) New York
• American Israelite (1854–2000) Cincinnati
• Jewish Advocate (1905–1990) Boston
• Jewish Exponent (1887–1990) Philadelphia

So what is one likely to find? …many stories that give credence to the term “wandering Jew”.

In 1893 the American Israelite reports that Jewish families that lived in villages and open country were ordered to move to towns. Many families had lived in their villages for generations and were given eight days notice to vacate. In 1915 the American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger reports yet another round of expulsions. The Governors of Radom (where my family came from) and nearby Kielce were especially noted for their “Jew-hatred” . Jews were often forced to leave without their property. Homes, businesses and property were quickly assumed by local Poles. If you are noting geographic movements within your ancestral family you may want to explore whether the timing relates to such events.

Anti-Semitism in Poland is documented far in advance of WWII. During WWI as territory moved back and forth between the Russians and the Germans, Poles accused Jews of being pro-Russian to the Germans and pro-German to the Russians with often deadly consequences visited upon the Jews. In 1931 anti-Jewish riots were breaking out in my grandfather’s town of Radom.

Post-war was no better as I read of the murder of Jews by the Poles as the Jews returned from the camps. In 1945, 600 Jews fled to American-held territory in Czechoslovakia fleeing Polish anti-Semitism and murder, only to be forcibly returned to Poland by General Patton.

A historical perspective makes it clear that Nazi Germany did not exist in a vacuum, but instead grew out of a long history of anti-Semitism, only unique in its magnitude and systematization.

The United States was not without its own bigotry with quotas on Jews at universities, something my father had reported as an obstacle in his time. In 1937 an article noted that 90% of US students at foreign medical schools in Scotland and England were Jewish. They were unable to gain admission in the US because they were Jewish. In the 1950s a study of medical school admissions found that 100% of Protestant A students were admitted while this fell to 88% if you were Jewish or Catholic. If you were a B student and Protestant you still had a 67% admission rate, while Catholics and Jews fell to a third. This bias began to break down in the 1950s as post-war public opinion began to turn against bigotry.

Those of us with an interest in family history are reminded that the history we learn in history books is often massaged far more than in the papers of the day. And newspapers that target a specific ethnicity are far more likely to address the sensitive issues that may not be addressed as openly in mass media.

 

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