‘Americans and the Holocaust‘ exhibit in Washington re-opens old wounds

(TNS/ Chicago Tribune) –  What did Americans know about the Holocaust, and when did we know it?

Those essential questions are at the core of a powerful new exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Be the first to know –

As the years have gone by, it’s become easier to think that our country probably didn’t have the full story on how the Nazi Party was treating Jews in Germany during the 1930s, which is why we didn’t get involved sooner. News traveled much more slowly then, right?

And it’s a fairly widely held belief, too, that we didn’t know about Germany’s Final Solution to eliminate European Jews until the war was ending and the Allies liberated the death camps.

The real answers, though, are surprising and more than a little disquieting, says the exhibit’s curator, Daniel Greene, an adjunct Northwestern University history professor and former Newberry Library vice president for research who is now a staff historian at the popular and ever-challenging Washington, D.C., museum.

“Americans have told themselves this story that news coverage of Nazism was buried in the back pages,” said Greene. “That lets us off the hook.”

His “Americans and the Holocaust” shows how deeply coverage of Nazism reached into middle America, and it demonstrates that by the end of 1942 we knew about the Nazis’ systematic killing of Jews even if we didn’t yet have photographic evidence.

“We wanted to ask why more wasn’t done,” said Greene, who also helped research the “Nazi Olympics” exhibition that was at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in 2016.

At the same time, the exhibit has deep resonances with American culture today. It exposes going through severe economic hardship in the 1930s.

And it shows how Hitler’s brand of fascism was rooted in making an enemy of “the other.” “Antisemitism is the life and soul of Hitler’s movement,” the popular American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1932, in a quote given prominence on an exhibition wall. “The Nazis lose no opportunity to insult the Jews.”

“There are disturbing echoes in what’s going on today,” said Greene. “This exhibition is intended to resonate with visitors around those questions, even though it’s a history exhibition.”

The most direct the Holocaust Museum has ever been in interrogating the United States, the exhibition marks the 25th anniversary of the national museum, which will keep the show up through at least the fall of 2021 but also makes substantial portions of it available .
  “Because it was our anniversary, we looked back to our founding documents as an institution,” said Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “It’s always a good time to think about what your founders thought. And in this (founding) report that was prepared by the President‘s Commission on the Holocaust chaired by Elie Wiesel, it made a very strong point that since this is an American institution and sits on this magnificent piece of real estate, which I would call kind of our civic landscape, that it should also talk about America‘s role, for better or for worse.

“So that was a mandate from the beginning. And we do that in our main exhibition, but we have never taken that out and looked at ourselves with the sole focus of a temporary exhibition. … We said for our 25th it’s an important time to make a statement about why this museum belongs in America. And we decided then that we would do this very challenging topic.”

In that 1979 report to the president, the scholar and Holocaust survivor Wiesel assessed American behavior: “Away from the battlefield, the judgment of history will be harsh,” he wrote. “How many victims, Jews and non-Jews, could have been saved had we changed our immigration laws, opened our gates more widely, protested more forcefully. We did not. Why not?”

“Americans and the Holocaust” is, as Bloomfield said, a challenging show. Implicit for Americans walking through its galleries is the thought that these people who held back in the knowledge of evil are our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

The United States, it shows, wanted to stay away from what was going on in Europe, even as it became apparent that Adolf Hitler had bigger plans than running Germany. As late as May 1940, 93 percent of Americans still did not want to go to war against Germany, according to one of the public opinion polls the exhibition uses to demonstrate the blind eye — or maybe it’s a cold shoulder — our country was giving to Europeans generally and Jews in particular.

This is the same group of people, broadly speaking, whose war and its toll would turn into what we now hail as the “greatest generation.”

The show’s introductory paragraphs address this dichotomy. “The American people — soldiers and civilians alike — made enormous sacrifices to free Europe from Nazi oppression,” the exhibit introduction says. “Yet saving Jews and others targeted for murder by the Nazi regime and its collaborators never became a priority.”

Yet judgment is mostly between the lines. “We try to be careful never to wag our finger at the visitor,” Greene says. “The approach of the museum in almost all its exhibit work over 25 years has been … to try to be authoritative in presenting the facts but not telling (people) exactly what to think.

“People have said to me this exhibition is restrained in that way — as a compliment, I hope.”

The facts, however, accrue. Greene used citizen research to document how much reporting there was on Nazism even in the American interior during the 1930s. He asked people to look in their local papers and share the stories they found.

The results are distilled into a touch-screen, state-by-state map. Call up Illinois and you can read a 1933 front-page story in Springfield’s Illinois State Register headlined “Nazis Boycott 600,000 Jews for Single Day.”

A collection of prewar newsreels — shown before movies nationwide — shows a Texas congressman in 1935 blaming American unemployment on immigrants and an “Aryan bookshop” in Los Angeles.

Especially potent is one newsreel titled from January 1938. It is unstinting in assessing Germany and its aims: “One mind, one will and one objective: expansion,” the narrator says. It notes the regime “pitilessly” persecuting its Jews and the buildup of the German war machine, which, it concludes, will be used for its intended purpose.

Yet despite such warnings, many other powerful forces were competing for attention in the U.S. There was anti-Semitism and even Nazism in the land; 1933 alone saw 24 lynchings of black Americans. And the Great Depression overshadowed much of what went on.

“The priority in the ’30s is the Great Depression. In the ’40s it’s winning the war,” Greene said. And that war, his show points out, is pitched to Americans as a battle to save democracy.

Greene cited Peter Hayes, a Northwestern University historian and Holocaust scholar who was an adviser to the exhibit: “Hayes says, ‘Why didn’t the United States rescue Jews? Because something else was always more important.’”

The question of the Holocaust intersected on several fronts with American popular culture. Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler satire “The Great Dictator” gets excerpted, for instance. And the aviator Charles Lindbergh, revered in an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum elsewhere on the National Mall, doesn’t fare so well in this exhibition. His service as frontman for isolationists and his overt anti-Semitism get the highlight pen.

Theodor Geisel, then a New York newspaper cartoonist, later to become Dr. Seuss, was merciless toward Lindbergh isolationists in a series of cartoons the show reproduces. And Ben Hecht, the Chicago journalist-turned-playwright, shows up with a withering poem he published denouncing American inaction.

“Tell Him we hadn’t quite the time/ To stop the killing of all the Jews,” says Hecht’s penultimate stanza. “Tell Him we looked askance at the crime —/ But we were busy with other news.”

As much as the show brings fresh insights into what the American people knew, it also spells out the more widely known story: How President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration missed, or deliberately turned down, chance after chance to help European Jews.

“The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited,” says Roosevelt in a 1935 quote blown up on the wall. “But this is also not a governmental affair.”

Similarly, as news of the Final Solution was reported first in government circles and then in the popular press by November 1942, the government did not take concrete steps, such as bombing railway lines feeding the death camps or bombing the camps themselves, that would not have prevented the Holocaust but could have lessened the death toll.

Not all of the stories are dismaying. Eleanor Roosevelt is portrayed using her influence to try to help refugees and instill humane policies. While Roosevelt’s State Department tried to cover up news of Germany’s murder of Jews, his Treasury Department exposed the cover-up. The American Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress, appears throughout the exhibit, working to goad officials into acting to help his people.

And the show ends on a hopeful note — or perhaps it is an admonishing one. The final images are of the Statue of Liberty: the real thing in New York Harbor on Victory in Europe Day at war’s end and a large replica brought into Times Square that same day, standing over thousands of Americans celebrating what they had achieved.

“We have a motto here about the museum, which is, ‘Never stop asking why,’” said Bloomfield, the director. “We’re a place that wants to provoke more questions. We’re not about the answers. We’re about forcing people or challenging people to ask a new set of questions.”

©2018 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.