Detroit Jewish News from 1920
(William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History)

A hunt for interesting back-to-school articles in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History resulted in a history lesson about antisemitism.

This is not the “Looking Back” that I first thought I would write for the JN’s annual “Back to School” issue. Of course, in the midst of a pandemic, it will be a much different return to classes for children and college students this year. So, I thought I would explore the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History and see if I could find any parallels to school days during the Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago.

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I found a big fat nothing. The Spanish Flu peaked during the late-fall and winter of 1918-1919, with a brief resurgence in spring 1920. I could not find any articles related to children, the flu and a return to school.

The poem by Enoch Mebs
The poem by Enoch Mebs William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

I went to Plan B. I searched for plain old “Back to School” articles from 100 years ago. There were plenty of advertisements for fall fashions and sales at Hudson’s and Himelhoch’s, as well as piano sales at Grinnell Brother’s. Since it was an election season in 1920, there were also plenty of political ads. There was nothing regarding the back-to-school season we have come to expect. It did not develop until some years later.  There was a poem by Enoch Mebs in the Aug. 27, 1920, issue of the Chronicle, “The Hurried Parting,” about children leaving home for their first days at school.

However, I did find an interesting — albeit disgusting and unfortunate — article that relates to current affairs today. One that reminded me of the primary reason for the JN’s antisemitism project this year.

You may have read last week about an article twice-published in the Polish-language newspaper in Toronto, the Glos Polish weekly, that blamed Jews for the coronavirus pandemic. While conducting research for this week’s column, I found an eerily similar article on the front page of the Aug. 6, 1920 issue of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle: “Polish Newspaper Repeats Articles Defaming the Jews.”

Polish defamation blurb from DJN from the 1920s
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

This headline referred to a letter from Mr. Kuzelewski, published in one of Detroit’s contemporary Polish-language newspapers, the Polish Daily Record. He wrote that, along with Russia, Germany and Austria, Jews were “the fourth and most important enemy of Poland …” Furthermore, “the Jew … took our Father’s soil from us, who sold our white women into slavery… is and wants to be in the future a parasite on our nation.” It was despicable and full of the tropes that, unfortunately, we still see today.

Ironically, the letter was written during the Polish-Russian war of 1919-1920, when Poland was fighting for its freedom and rights. Freedom was relative, it appears. As reported in the Chronicle, pogroms against Jews in Poland were commonplace during this era.

The Detroit branch of the ADL as well as local citizens rallied against the Polish Daily Record. Chagrined, its editor claimed that its readers knew “that its policy is not, nor ever was, anti-Semitic.” Right. Same thing the Canadian newspaper claims. Then, why print such letters?

In the end, my hunt for interesting back-to-school articles resulted in a history lesson about antisemitism that I did not expect. It’s not a fun topic but it is a necessary one.

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at
www.djnfoundation.org.