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Americans and the Holocaust
A new exhibit dispels the myth that most Americans were unaware of the atrocities happening in Europe.
Was it simply ignorance that Jews were being murdered en masse? Was it anti-Semitism? Or did the United States’ unwillingness to rescue Europe’s Jews from the Holocaust have more nuanced causes?
That’s the question Daniel Greene set out to answer five years ago when he was asked to curate “Americans and the Holocaust,” a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It opened April 23 to commemorate the museum’s 25th anniversary and will run until the fall of 2021.
Displays show how a number of factors, including the Great Depression, isolationism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism influenced decisions made by the American government, news media, Hollywood, advocacy organizations and individuals as they responded to Nazism.
The exhibit dispels a popular myth that most Americans were unaware of what was happening in Europe by providing extensive documentation of news media accounts from the 1930s and 1940s.
“Americans had lots of access to the information — more than previously had been assumed — though they didn’t always connect the dots at first,” Greene said. “They can’t say they didn’t know.”
The archive includes eight articles from the Detroit Jewish News and 25 from the Detroit Jewish Chronicle, which closed in 1951.
Throughout the exhibit, newspaper and magazine articles document the rise of Hitler and German persecution of the Jews.
A touchscreen near the entrance to the exhibit connects visitors with regional and local coverage of the unfolding tragedy. The display, which offers about 50 select articles, is part of “History Unfolded,” a crowd-sourced effort in which anyone can search out articles from the era that dealt with the rise of Hitler, the persecution of Jews and efforts to save them, and post them on the museum’s website.
The online database “History Unfolded” so far includes more than 13,000 articles from around the country. Among those are links to more than 300 articles from newspapers published in Michigan, with more being added. The archive includes eight articles from the Detroit Jewish News and 25 from the Detroit Jewish Chronicle, which closed in 1951. Greene says he’s hoping for additional submissions, especially from college newspapers and the ethnic/foreign language press.
Greene says the collection shows that the information reached the American heartland, not just major metropolitan areas and the coasts.
The exhibit finds a number of answers to the question of why rescuing Jews never became a priority for the United States.
A major reason was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s clear aim in the war was defeating Hitler, a goal disassociated from the tragedy befalling the Jews.
Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, isolationist sentiment in the U.S. was strong. Many Americans viewed Hitler’s conquests as Europe’s problem, not ours. While Roosevelt felt he might be able to convince Americans to go to war to defend democracy, he knew they weren’t as likely to support efforts to save the victims of fascism.
Anti-Semitism in America was at its height in the 1930s, said Greene; longtime Detroiters will remember the anti-Semitic radio rants of Royal Oak’s Father Charles Coughlin.
Kristallnacht, the coordinated attacks against Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues in November 1938, was widely covered by the American press, yet Roosevelt told reporters afterwards that he would not consider relaxing the immigration quota system.
Anti-Semitism in the State Department limited the admission of Jewish refugees even further. The Immigration Act of 1924 permitted a maximum of 25,967 visas annually from Germany, but in 1933, only 1,241 visas were issued and there was a three-year waiting list. Congress failed to pass proposed legislation in 1939 that would have admitted 20,000 German refugee children.
The exhibit shows how these national decisions affected ordinary people like Flora Hochsinger, a Ph.D. math teacher in Vienna, who desperately tried to find someone to sponsor her immigration to the United States. The White House, State Department, B’nai B’rith and various celebrities all turned her down. She was deported from Vienna and murdered in 1942.
Greene says he understands Roosevelt’s position. Throughout the war years, polls consistently showed that a huge majority of Americans disapproved of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews — but nearly three-quarters of them were not willing to accept more refugees. The president knew he had to lead Americans toward intervention while at the same time bowing to widespread public anti-immigration sentiment.
The largest number of petitions to the president came from Detroit, after a drive organized by Philip Slomovitz, then editor of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle. Nothing came of the effort.
Even toward the end, when the War Refugee Board urged military action to bomb the tracks leading to the concentration camps, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy responded that the government’s priority was the earliest possible victory over Germany; incapacitating the extermination camps wouldn’t advance that goal.
The American Jewish community in the 1930s was divided about how to respond, Greene said. Some American Jewish leaders were outspoken advocates of American intervention; others worried about backlash if they spoke out too forcefully.
“Some wanted to take to the streets to protest and to boycott German goods,” he said. “Others wanted to work quietly behind the scenes.”
Greene said tens of thousands of civic groups, churches and Jewish organizations in a number of states sent petitions in the summer of 1933 urging the president to express disapproval of the persecution of Jews to the German government. The largest number of petitions came from Detroit, after a drive organized by Philip Slomovitz, then editor of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle. Nothing came of the effort.
“Americans and the Holocaust” connects the Holocaust to current events by encouraging visitors to think about their roles and responsibilities as citizens, Greene said. Posters urge visitors to think about what they learned the next time they see hatred or injustice.
These are difficult questions, he said. “What are our responsibilities to refugees? When there is war abroad, how do we deal with the question of when to intervene and when to remain in isolation?”
Can’t make it to Washington, D.C.? The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website includes much of the information in the exhibit as well as educational resources. Find it at ushmm.org/americans.