Wichita man remembers his father as he donates to 'Americans and the Holocaust'

Forrest "Jim" Robinson Jr. visits the "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibition in Washington, D.C. The son of a World War II liberator, Robinson donated many items to the exhibit.
Forrest "Jim" Robinson Jr. visits the "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibition in Washington, D.C. The son of a World War II liberator, Robinson donated many items to the exhibit. Courtesy Photo

Growing up, Forrest “Jim” Robinson Jr. knew about the photographs kept in his father’s center desk drawer in a white envelope.

The photos were a part of his father, Robinson said, something he couldn’t really part with. Forrest Robinson Sr. had taken the photos after his company liberated a concentration camp outside of Nordhausen, Germany.

“What was left when my dad arrived were the dead and the dying,” Robinson said.

Those photos are now at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Although Robinson Sr. died in 2012, his son has maintained a close connection to the museum. At the end of April, a new exhibit opened titled “Americans and the Holocaust.” In it are items donated by Robinson Jr., a Wichita attorney.

Growing up, Robinson heard his father, a Methodist minister and a political figure, speak about World War II.

“It was such a galvanizing period for him,” Robinson said. “He came away with many stories about human nature.”

Yet his father didn’t often speak about the liberation of the camp. He didn’t remember much of it, Robinson said, perhaps because of the trauma.

It was a labor camp that up to 60,000 workers went through during the war. Half of them died there. It had its own crematorium.

All Robinson’s father remembered of the two weeks he spent in the camp were becoming sick when he entered a barracks, shouting to the heavens and cursing God, Robinson said.

As a child, Robinson began collecting political and war propaganda buttons. He has buttons that show anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, buttons about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and buttons opposing Adolf Hitler.

Many of those are now in the exhibit at the museum.

Another contribution Robinson made to the museum is a Hitler pincushion: a cast iron character about 7 inches tall that is giving the Heil Hitler salute — with a pin cushion for a rear. It comes with pins decorated with the American flag.

Daniel Greene, exhibition curator, said the exhibit tells the story of the American response to Naziism — and how isolation and prejudice at home kept Americans from responding to the Holocaust.

The items donated by Robinson “bring visitors back into the period, into the 1940s” and “bring this rich texture of the visual culture of America at the time,” Greene said.

During the last 10 years of his life, Robinson Sr. spoke about World War II to anyone who would listen, his son said. It was the “rise of old sentiments” that prompted his desire to educate, Robinson said, after neo-Nazis rallied in the city of Dresden.

The current exhibit shows that Americans knew about German atrocities much earlier yet didn’t make rescuing European Jews a priority.

Robinson said that’s a poignant message today.

“It becomes troubling that throughout our history, we have these events that occur and the lack of a response results in the deaths of many,” Robinson said. “You only have to look at Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Cambodia, the current situation in Myanmar to know that this terrible aspect of humanity lurks not far underneath this fragile crust we call civilization. When the world doesn’t respond, it’s a concern.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess.