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Holocaust Museum exhibit raises difficult questions

Items from Jim Robinson’s collection of war memorabilia are part of an exhibit in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Items from Jim Robinson’s collection of war memorabilia are part of an exhibit in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

When we look in the nation’s rear-view mirror, we may not always like what see, but we cannot look away.

In November 1942, headlines in two Kansas newspapers read, “All Jews To Be Killed By Nazis” and “Slaughter of Jews Ahead at Fast Pace.”

Long before U.S. soldiers freed a concentration camp, in July 1944 Kansas papers reported the murder of 1.7 million people at the Auschwitz “extermination camp.”

As early as 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Hutchinson News reported about a Nazi party proclamation of “war on the entire Jewish people.” A 1933 headline in the Wyandotte Echo read, “Hitler Smells of Ku Klux Klanism.”

An often-repeated myth is that Americans were unaware of Nazi atrocities until World War II’s waning days in 1945. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington recently opened a special exhibit raising disturbing questions about what Americans knew and the American response.

“Visitors will be surprised at how much Americans knew about Nazism and the Holocaust and how early they knew it,” curator and Northwestern University historian Daniel Greene said in a release announcing the exhibit. “The difficult question we want people to ask is: If Americans had this information, why didn’t the rescue of Jews become a priority?”

The museum’s crowdsourcing project collected more than 15,000 newspaper stories about Nazi persecution published between 1933 and 1945, including from Kansas.

On Nov. 10, 1938, the Hutchinson News, in a story about Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, reported “the greatest wave of anti-Jewish violence since Adolph (sic) Hitler came to power in 1933 … every section of the country told of the burning and dynamiting of synagogues and demolition of Jewish shops.”

Throughout the museum,backlit pillars display poll data. After Kristallnacht, 94 percent of polled Americans “disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany.” But when asked, “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live,” 71 percent answered no.

The exhibit explores the reasons for Americans’ closed-door response.

In his 1933 diary, the U.S. ambassador to Germany recorded President Franklin Roosevelt’s instructions: “The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a governmental affair.” Roosevelt believed that Americans would not go to war or support great spending to save European Jews. This was due in part to lingering impacts of the Great Depression and xenophobic, anti-Semitic and isolationist sentiments.

Even during the war, the U.S. government focused more on fighting fascism and preserving American values than rescue.

Visitors leave the display knowing that unthinkable barbarity lies in wait beneath civilization’s thin veneer. But nothing is unfathomable. Post-war experiences in Bosnia, Syria, the Sudan, Cambodia, Myanmar and Syria prove that.

Answers to questions about Americans’ responsiveness to the Holocaust matter today as we grapple with responsibility here for racism and intolerance and abroad for preventing genocide, intervening in conflicts and providing safe havens for refugees.

The Holocaust is humanity’s dark hole into which we must peer. It’s hard to look at. But if we don’t, words like “Never Again” will fall like rain on a dry Kansas plain, so vital and so quickly gone.

Forrest James Robinson Jr. is a partner with Hite, Fanning & Honeyman law firm and contributed items to the exhibit. His father, Forrest James Robinson Sr., was a corporal with the 104th Infantry Division at the liberation of the Mittelbau Dora camp near Nordhausen, Germany, on April 12, 1945.