Chicago Middle School Finds Hidden Holocaust History

8th graders in school
8th graders huddle to discuss findings and progress for the History Unfolded project by the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

By Yarilet Perez

History is not determined by the past, but by the decisions we make in the present that define moments in history. Eighth graders at the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School have contributed over 300 articles to History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust project, a research initiative by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The museum calls on students, teachers, and lovers of history to collect articles reflecting Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust as it happened, and more important, how they responded – or didn’t. Since January, the students of Dr. Jeff Ellison’s eighth grade history class have been discovering articles from local Chicago newspapers, such as The Defender, The Chicago Tribune, and The Sentinel. All depict how news was reported in the U.S. So far, the 50 participating students in the school have supported the museum in reaching its goal of 5,000 articles, and they are still finding more.

The middle school historians conducted their search after careful planning from their instructor. Dr. Ellison, or “Doc” as the class calls him, gave his students the foundations of history- the timeline of the Holocaust beginning from the French Revolution and onward, before unpacking the work required for the project.

“I had to do a lot of leg work before the project began,” Ellison said. “I had to think about reframing the curriculum. The difference is with History Unfolded [is that] this is really a gateway to doing history.”

The National Holocaust Memorial Museum began this project to aid researchers of the Holocaust, and “raise questions for scholars” about Americans and the Holocaust, as stated on their website. Also, according to the site, as of March 13, 2017, there have been over 8,200 articles submitted from 1,123 participants across the country.

After hearing about the museums’ search for work on the local level from a fellow teacher, Ellison reached out to a staff member at the D.C. – based museum, where they discussed how to implement the project at Bernard Zell. The project requires all participants to submit articles reflecting the events of the Holocaust to a national database.

While the museum provides educators with such materials as printable handouts, a blog with ideas for classwork, and museum staff available to help, Ellison created his own unit.

“I looked at the Tribune, and I found so many articles and probably like two-thirds of my submissions are from the Tribune, said Olivia Frankel, a student in Ellison’s class.

“No one has ever done this before,” said Frankel recalling the day her teacher introduced the museum project. “Your articles are going to be submitted to help research. And when I found that out I was so excited,” Frankel said.

Taking an in-depth look at key moments in the timeline of the Holocaust, in-class and at home, students worked on their assignments. In school, they dialogued about their findings, what it meant for them, lessons, and established the relevance of history with current events.

“Now that I’ve learned about this, and looking back in time, in history, I’ve seen this happen – [and] this is happening over and over again,” said Leo Fisher, a contributing student to the project.

“It’s just insanely surprising. Before this, I definitely did not know that everyone knew about the Holocaust,” said Ben Prostic, a student in Ellison’s class. Because we were taught that they were secret extermination camps – they were supposed to be secret.”

Students have open discussions about today’s refugee crises, making several comparisons as well as distinctions between now and the Jews persecuted at the time.

“People just think Jews are bad. Because that’s how they’re portrayed,” said Jake Herman, a contributing student to the project. They’re portrayed as scapegoats, and that’s just how they’re universally known. So, I think, just more knowledge of people on this earth would be better too.”

The students, enthralled by the process of finding and contributing to history, contacted the museum requesting to look at states other than Illinois that have not submitted articles. Together with Dr. Ellison, they hope to find a distinction between states and their populations, such as what was reported in the city vs. the farming communities.

“Ultimately, my goal for the project is that students stand up and make a difference,” Ellison said. “That they learn – that they look back in the past, and see what happened when people did not take a stand.”

The dedication and hard work of the Bernard Zell will be seen at an exhibition scheduled to open in April 2018.

Photo at top: 8th graders huddle to discuss findings and progress for the History Unfolded project by the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (Yarilet Perez/MEDILL)