history and hindsight

As part of a side project for a professor of mine, I’ve spent much of this week buried in New York University’s Tamiment Library, combing through the archives of Picture Magazine, a leftist newspaper published daily in New York from 1940-1948.

Today I relived the entire Allied invasion of Europe, including the Italian surrender, the takeover of Rome, D-Day and the liberation of Paris. When I go back on Saturday, the Soviets will reach Auschwitz.

It’s strange to read through these archives, day by day, already knowing what will happen: knowing that the first mention of “forced labor” in Poland in late 1941 will eventually lead to a 1944 photo essay that includes a picture of a pile of shoes discarded by Jewish gas chamber victims; anticipating American troops landing at Normandy. Reading brave articles that claim that the war will be over by the year’s end — articles published in 1943 and in 1944. Knowing that Jews were proposing a Holocaust memorial before American newspapers were even reporting Rabbi Stephen Wise’s first press conference on the genocide.

(According to some accounts, it took almost two years for reports of the Holocaust to be taken seriously, largely because they were difficult to corroborate. I wonder what things would have been like had Ushahidi existed?)

It’s a lot of history to take in in seven hours, and my head is spinning with the thought that, with the help of microfilm, I condensed 60 million deaths into a day’s work.