As visitors enter the new exhibition “Americans and the Holocaust” at the United Holocaust Memorial Museum, the first installation they see has nothing to do with the Holocaust or Europe. It’s the context of 1933 America. A video with frantic and somewhat ominous violin music plays as the challenges the United States faced are listed off: economic depression, segregation and lynching, wariness following World War I and anti-immigrant discrimination.
As they step into the first gallery, though, visitors get a sense of what Americans knew. A touch-screen display shows clippings from newspapers across the country throughout the 1930s detailing the rise of Hitler and the accelerating threat to Germany’s Jews. Ignorance, in short, was no excuse for inaction.
The new exhibition will be on display at the museum until 2021, and it uses primary source documents, photographs, contemporary newsreels and interactive displays to detail American public opinion, cultural outlook and government response in the years leading up to and during the Holocaust.
“We wanted to explain Americans’ actions without excusing them,” said Daniel Greene, the lead curator of the exhibition, which he said took more than five years to complete. “We wanted to show that Americans had a lot of access to information about persecution and later murder of European Jews. And we want to ask, if we had this information, why didn’t rescue ever become a priority? We’d like visitors to realize that there was more access to information than people assume.”
The bulk of the exhibition chronicles the struggles of German refugees trying to escape Nazi rule and get to America. As visitors move from the first room to the second, they’re confronted with a series of documents detailing the arduous process of obtaining an immigration visa and pleas for help from Jews in Germany.
One letter, dated July of 1938, is from Emil Oettinger, a Jew living in Hamburg, to The Oettinger Lumber Company in Washington.
“I found your address in a telephone-book, published in the year 1931/32, and to day, I should beg you hearty to pay the utmost attention to this letter,” Oettinger writes. “I am searching for relatives or friends, who would make it possible for me and my wife to get admission to USA by giving an affidavit. … Perhaps I am very lucky to find a relative in you, if not, I should hope a generous friend, who is prepared to stand for the said affidavit to USA, and you would make us to the luckiest people, who would never forget this kindness.”
Visitors aren’t told what becomes of Oettinger’s efforts, but the museum’s records indicate that he was deported from Augsburg, Germany, in 1942.
What the exhibition does convey is the scale of the refugee crisis, and its rapid escalation through the late 1930s. The State Department had no discrete refugee immigration status; instead, it used quotas for individual countries instituted in 1924. But even those quotas weren’t fully met. In 1933, the State Department issued just 1,241 visas to Germans despite a quota of 25,957 and the 82,787 Germans on a waiting list. “Most did not have enough money to qualify for immigration,” according to the exhibit, which illustrates the number of Germans waiting with a series of suitcases extending down from a wall display.
By 1940, a year before Nazi Germany closed U.S. consulates and cut off emigration, 27,355 Germans received visas, nearly filling the State Department quota. But the waiting list was over 300,000, most of them Jewish, according to the museum. Under the displays for 1939 and 1940, the suitcases (each representing 5,000 people on a waiting list) extend down from the wall and run across the carpet. Under 1941, there are none.
“The U.S. certainly could’ve let in more refugees under existing law, and there was no political will to change restrictive immigration policy,” Greene said. “But even under that policy, the U.S. didn’t issue the maximum number of visas it could. … This is a history exhibition but it’s an exhibition that’s framed around enduring questions, and one of those that Americans have debated over time is, what are our responsibilities, as a society, to refugees?”
The exhibit also does a lot to explain the debate in the United States over whether to actually enter the war. Into the 1940s many Americans — some motivated by isolationism, some by anti-Semitism or xenophobia — still opposed entering the war, despite what was known at the time about the persecution and murder of Jews, and Hitler’s march through Europe.
Anti-Semitism, the exhibition makes clear, was in no way limited to Europe. In 1938, it says, two-thirds of Americans believed that “Jews in Germany are either ‘entirely’ or ‘partly’ to blame for their own persecution.” And many American Jews were afraid to lobby too publicly for direct confrontation with Germany, fearing common stereotypes about Jewish influence over government.
The reality was closer to the opposite. In 1942, State Department officials refused to inform prominent American rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the president of the World Jewish Congress, of the Nazis’ “final solution.”
Once it was made public, “State Department officials instructed colleagues in Switzerland not to transmit further reports about the mass murder of Jews either to the U.S. government or to private citizens,” the exhibition says. “They hoped that blocking such reports would suppress pressure to aid Jews.”
There’s some levity within the exhibition. A reel of clips from contemporary film productions — among them videos of Daffy Duck and Charlie Chaplin satirizing Hitler — illustrate Hollywood’s response to the war, though largely to show how hesitant it was to directly address to plight of European Jews.
But at the end, visitors learn that even as the atrocities of the Holocaust were just starting to be fully uncovered, some American attitudes hadn’t changed. In 1945, it says, “only five percent of Americans believe the United States should admit more refugees than it did before the war.”