Though we were staying in the Washington, DC area for a few days after our retreat to visit family, we did continue our justice tour on Friday with a visit to the US Holocaust Museum, specifically to tour the new exhibit on America and the Holocaust.
The exhibit is exceptionally well done both in terms of education and engagement; many of the displays were not only very informative but interactive as well. We felt this would be an important stop to include because, if we are going to be looking at the various examples of hatred and oppressions throughout our country’s history, we need to include antisemitism as well.
It was antisemitism in large part that drove much of the American response to both the Holocaust itself and World War II in general. The setting of immigration quotas prior to the war that cut off immigration, the refusal to let in refugees during the war itself, and the decision not to bomb rail lines as the extent of the Final Solution became known–these were in large part driven by fear and suspicion of the Other, the immigrant, the Jew.
Some of this history I was familiar with, yet organized into a coherent narrative and organized framework was helpful and illuminating. And there were surprises and new insight as well. One interactive display showed how newspapers around the country were reporting on the antisemitic policies of the Nazi regime in the mid-30s. And how, both in contrast yet also eerily similar, Life magazine after the war published powerful images from the camps, without mentioning Jews once.
Antisemitism was not confined to the leaders. Statistics displayed in the exhibit told how, in 1938 for example, 2/3 of Americans believed that Jews in Germany were responsible for their own persecution. And even some Jewish groups were reluctant to press the government on the matter of European Jewry because they felt it would be detrimental to their standing in the US. Prior to the war, the America First Committee tried to get the US to stay out of the war, and blamed Jews in part for their outsized influence.
It is, of course, hard to not see parallels to today. (Even some of the language is the same.) We know as Jews what it is like to be on the other side of an immigration policy or refugee decision. It is our story, yes. And it is a human story.
So rather than belabor the connection I’ll just mention two personalities that emerged from the exhibit, one villain and one hero.
The villain is Breckinridge Long, the assistant Secretary of State who was in large part responsible for limiting visas and slowing the admission of refugees. When Congress was debating in November, 1943 to establish a body to help European Jews, he deliberately misrepresented facts during secret testimony to a Congressional committee, overstating the number of refugees the US had admitted. His lies were uncovered and widely criticized, and he resigned from his position the following year.
The hero is Helen Roseland of Eagle Grove, IA. After being fired from his teaching job in Vienna in 1938, Franz Goldberger was looking to emigrate to the United States. Needing an American sponsor but knowing no one, he wrote letters to people he didn’t know–through professional organizations, for example–looking for someone to provide an affidavit. His plea found its way to Roseland, who agreed to be his sponsor and raise the money. Navigating the bureaucracy and providing the necessary paperwork took about four years, however, during which time Goldberger died in a concentration camp.
As Jews we desperately believe that the story of the Holocaust, and America’s response, needs to be told and taught. Everyone needs to know this history and how antisemitism operates. And we also need, in our day, to identify the Breckinridge Longs and be inspired to be the Helen Roselands.