WASHINGTON, D.C. – Marking its 25th anniversary year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened a new special exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust. It examines the motives, pressures and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war and the persecution and murder of Jews in Europe during the 1930s and ‘40s.
Based on extensive new research, this is the most comprehensive exhibition exploring the many factors, including the Great Depression, isolationism, xenophobia, racism, and anti-semitism – that influenced decisions made by the US government, the news media, Hollywood, organizations and individuals as they responded to Nazism.
Oswego, New York, is featured as part of the exhibition.
In August 1944, the War Refugee Board brought 982 refugees from 18 different countries to the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego. This was the only time during World War II that the US government agreed to bypass immigration laws to allow a group of refugees to reach the United States.
Instead of welcoming them as immigrants, however, the refugees were designated as “guests of the President.” They were held behind barbed-wire fences, a section of which is featured in the exhibition, at Fort Ontario and were informed that they would be returned to Europe when the war ended.
“A section of the fence was removed by Fort Ontario staff with assistance from Heidi Miksch, Objects Conservator of the New York Office Of Park, Recreation and Historic Preservation Historic Resource Center at Peebles Island, Waterford, NY. Heidi treated and conserved the fence, carefully packaged it up and shipped it to the curators at the U.S. Memorial Museum of the Holocaust in Washington DC,” explained Paur Lear, Historic Site Manager at Fort Ontario. ” Heidi provided instructions for assembly of the fence to Holocaust Museum Curators and staff of Hadley Exhibits Inc. of Buffalo, NY, who were contracted to design, fabricate, and install the exhibit. Heidi provided advice to the curators and exhibit fabricators up to a few days before the exhibit opened on Monday April 23.”
The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter segment of the exhibit is located near the end of the ‘Americans and the Holocaust Exhibit.’
Curators have identified the Fort Ontario fence as one of two or three iconic artifacts of the exhibit; it is the last artifact a visitor sees before leaving the exhibit and is a symbol of America’s little and late efforts to rescue Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
View video: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn1000178
The overview video of the exhibit from the Holocaust Museum: ushmm.org/americans
Earlier this month a study found two-thirds of American millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was.
Americans and the Holocaust dispels myths about this history, such as the misperception that Americans lacked access to information about the persecution of Jews as it was happening.
It examines why their rescue never became a priority for the US government even as the country made great sacrifices to defeat Nazism.
“Visitors will be surprised at how much Americans knew about Nazism and the Holocaust and how early they knew it,” said exhibition curator Daniel Greene. “The exhibition also shows what else was on Americans’ minds as they learned about these threats, from great economic insecurity to the isolationist sentiment in the wake of World War I and national security fears during World War II. We transport visitors back into that tumultuous era so that they might consider these events without the benefit of hindsight.”
• Presents public opinion polling from the era to examine how World War I, the Great Depression, isolationism, and anti-semitism shaped American attitudes and both reflected and affected leaders’ decisions.
• Includes new research and artifacts illustrating the many obstacles European Jews faced on both sides of the Atlantic while they tried to flee Europe and enter the United States.
• Chronicles what the US government—from President Roosevelt to Congress and government agencies—did and did not do to respond to Nazism and the persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
• Sheds light on how much information was available to Americans in their local communities both early on and during the war years about the threat of Nazism and the Holocaust.
Some of the local coverage featured in this exhibition was gathered through a museum online crowdsourcing initiative, “History Unfolded,” engaging schools and individuals across the country who helped build the largest online archive of American newspaper coverage of key events during the Holocaust.
“History Unfolded” shows just how much information about Nazism and the plight of Europe’s Jews was available to Americans.
It reveals that much of Hollywood tended to portray Nazism as a threat to democracy without mentioning the plight of Europe’s Jews.
And, it presents the stories of individual Americans, many of whom took actions that went against the grain at the time.
This includes extraordinary stories of Americans who dared to rescue Jews from Europe.
“Since opening our doors 25 years ago, the museum has asked difficult questions about Holocaust history and encouraged people to reflect on their roles and responsibilities in society today,” said museum director Sara J. Bloomfield. “Americans and the Holocaust will challenge visitors to think about both the missed opportunities to save lives and the impact of those few individuals who took action.”
The exhibition honors the mandate in the institution’s founding charter that the museum put special emphasis on Americans’ responses to the Holocaust.
The 1979 President’s Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by museum founding chair Elie Wiesel, states that the American experience “must … be explored thoroughly and honestly. . . . The decision to face the issue constitutes an act of moral courage worthy of our nation.’’
Americans’ responses to the Holocaust have always been presented throughout the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition and this exhibition goes into greater detail.
Americans and the Holocaust will be featured at the museum until 2021.
It’s part of a larger institutional initiative that will include:
• An interactive multimedia version of the exhibition to allow digital access to the content;
• A museum display American Witnesses featuring testimonies of American military personnel who encountered the concentration camps;
• Educational resources, including lesson plans for teachers that will encourage the adoption of Americans and the Holocaust content into classrooms across the country;
• A range of public programs nationwide during 2018 and 2019;
• A book by journalist and author Michael Dobbs to be released in the spring of 2019 tracing the fate of four German-Jewish families and their struggles to leave Germany as well as overcome restrictive US immigration policies;
• In partnership with the American Library Association, a traveling Americans and the Holocaust exhibition that will be on view in 50 libraries across the country (reaching an estimated 400,000 visitors) between 2020 and 2022.
Since opening in 1993, the museum has developed thematic special exhibitions that explore not only how but why the Holocaust happened as a way to encourage audiences to think critically about this history and its lessons.
Previous special exhibitions have examined Nazi propaganda, how scientists and physicians legitimized Nazi racial ideology and the role of ordinary people and why they became complicit in the Holocaust.
An online version of the exhibition can be found at ushmm.org/americans.
Stories from the Americans and the Holocaust exhibition and the online exhibition will be featured on the museum’s social media channels: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@holocaustmuseum).
About the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 25th Anniversary
The museum is marking its 25th anniversary under the banner “Never Stop Asking Why” to inspire people to reflect on the questions raised by the Holocaust and our responsibility in society today.
The milestone year launched in January 2018 with a social media initiative #AskWhy that has sparked 675,000 engagements with our content.
During the Days of Remembrance on April 9, the conversation expanded to reach leaders in technology, science, history, and policy when the museum held its inaugural Global Issues Forum to explore what Holocaust history can teach us about human nature.
At the 25th Anniversary National Tribute Dinner that evening, the museum honored all Holocaust survivors with its highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award, for their courage and resilience and for inspiring the global movement for Holocaust remembrance and education.
About the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.
Visit ushmm.org for more information.
To learn more, visit Oswego’s Safe Haven Museum in the Fort Ontario Park complex.
(Some photos provided by Paul Lear)