January 9, 2008


The Record, the Broadcast and the Nazis: An Archivist's Discovery Rewrites History (Maggie Master, Fall 2007, Catholic University of America Magazine)

The record had a thick, deep scratch around its aluminum circumference, but that wasn’t the first thing Patrick Cullom noticed. It had been sent to CUA’s archives from Nugent Hall back in the `90s, packed in a sagging cardboard box that didn’t look much different from other boxes that found their way to the archives from the back of some closet or basement storeroom. The box contained antiquated record albums just like the one Cullom held in his hand, discs that needed to be sorted and filed, or tossed.

As the university’s first-ever audiovisual archivist, Cullom had in 2003 begun the gargantuan task of sifting through and sorting 750,000 photos and a century’s worth of records, tape recordings and newspaper clippings. Which explains why, more than a year into his job, Cullom was only just now surveying this particular box and this particular recording.

He had found plenty of records like this one, records that hadn’t been played in 70 years — records that couldn’t be played, not without paying big bucks to a specialist who could transfer their contents to a digital format. And so he might have simply reshelved this one with others like it, if something hadn’t caught his eye. Visible through a hole cut out of the dust jacket was a handwritten label on the center of the record: “Catholic Protest Against Nazis — Nov. 16, 1938.”

Cullom was no World War II expert, but he knew enough about the conflict to realize that there was something curious about the date on the label. 1938 — a year before Germany’s invasion of Poland sparked World War II, and a full three years before the United States would enter the war. The date was much earlier than he would have expected for a stateside protest. So Cullom took a second look. [...]

When the CUA archivists finally got the recording back from an audio restoration company, it was in the form of an MP3, an audio encoding format. Even restored, the recording carried the trademark crackle and static of a 1930s radio broadcast. The announcer spoke in the mellifluous baritone of the radio personalities of that age. He explained what the listening audience was about to hear: a live national broadcast from the CUA campus, carried by both the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), featuring several prominent members of the clergy and a well-known former governor, patched in from their respective locations across the country. The announcer then introduced Rev. Maurice S. Sheehy, head of the university’s Department of Religious Education, who was the broadcast’s organizer. His voice, though grave, possessed the theatrical quality of a moving Sunday sermon.

“The world is witnessing a great tragedy in Europe today,” Father Sheehy began, “and after sober, calm reflection, various groups and leaders of the Catholic Church have sought permission to raise their voices, not in mad hysteria, but in firm indignation against the atrocities visited upon the Jews in Germany…”

In constructing a timeline of the Holocaust, most scholars place Kristallnacht — Nov. 9, 1938 — at its start. “The night of broken glass.” On a raw night in late autumn, thousands of Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were ransacked throughout Germany in large-scale Nazi-orchestrated rioting that would continue for two days. Some Jews were beaten to death that night, and more than 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up for concentration camps.

CUA’s 27-minute broadcast went over the nation’s airwaves just six days after the violence abated, on Nov. 16, 1938. In a pre-Internet, pre-television era, the speed with which these geographically scattered members of the Catholic Church responded was impressive.

Catholic University was not simply a venue for the event. The university’s chief executive, Monsignor Joseph M. Corrigan (later elevated to bishop), was featured in the broadcast along with three of the school’s then current or former trustees: Archbishop John J. Mitty of San Francisco, Bishop Peter L. Ireton of Richmond, Va., and former governor of New York Al Smith, who in 1928 had been the first Catholic to run for president of the United States as a major-party nominee. Bishop John M. Gannon of Erie, Pa., also spoke on the broadcast.

Why these particular men were chosen for the broadcast is a question the archivists are still investigating, but they speculate that the group’s members were chosen not only for their prominence within the Church and Catholic University, but also for their prior radio experience and vocal opposition to anti-Semitism. Smith — the only lay voice on the broadcast — was a savvy choice: He was, thanks to his presidential bid, a household name.

The purpose of this program, Father Sheehy said in his opening address, was to appeal to Christian political leaders in Germany to stop the persecution of the Jews. But it is clear the broadcast was also meant to inspire prayers for the beleaguered Jews and to denounce what Monsignor Corrigan called “a persecution hardly if ever equaled since earlier blood-lusting paganism martyred Christians for their faith in God.” [...]

[F]uture generations will learn of the Holocaust in their classrooms, learn of the systematic brutality and the death camps. It is a grim but necessary journey that many pupils before them have traveled. But thanks to the CUA archivists, many will now have the opportunity to learn of the early outpouring of solidarity that flowed from American Catholics to their German Jewish brothers and sisters — a welcome addition to the pages of history.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2008 6:31 AM

I somehow must have missed this, this fall, on BBC, NPR or broadcast TV News.

Posted by: genecis at January 9, 2008 9:14 AM