When Holocaust historians ask what Americans knew, the focus often is on lawmakers, whose initiatives might have mitigated the Nazi genocide. An exhibit that opened last month at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington asks “What did Americans know?” on a more literal level: what did American voters, the constituents who may have done more to pressure their lawmakers to intervene, know at the time?
The answer — a lot — is less than comforting.
“Visitors will be surprised at how much Americans knew about Nazism and the Holocaust and how early they knew it,” curator Daniel Greene said, in a press release announcing the exhibit, which is titled “Americans and the Holocaust.”
The exhibit, twisting chronologically along the museum’s first floor, is punctuated by backlit pillars with poll questions spanning the period of Nazi rule in Germany and then Europe.
Typical is one poll, November 1938: “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” Spin the pillar, and the answer is a resounding “No,” at 71 percent Until after the war ended, the percentages opposing refugee intake consistently hover in the low 70s — a substantial majority.
“Public opinion doesn’t move,” Greene said, leading a reporter on a tour of the exhibit. (In the same poll, Americans were asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany?” Ninety-four percent disapproved.)
Visitor accrue a sobering assessment of Americans’ reaction to the news from Europe. Sympathy is a constant, but so is resistance to measures that might have mitigated the genocide, including military intervention and bringing in refugees.
It’s easier to pin the charge of apathy on select villains, and many historical accounts in recent years have: State Department mandarins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a media hesitant to emphasize the plight of Jews, a Hollywood hesitant to identify Jews as the principal victims.
But the exhibit corrects these impressions, or at least places them in the context of populace that did not want to engage until it was too late.
Did The New York Times bury some shocking reports? Yes. But wire services were unstinting in covering the truth of Nazi persecution. Thanks to the stunning results of a museum crowdsourcing initiative launched in 2016, where high school students and others researched Holocaust coverage at local libraries, we know these reports were given prominent play across the country.
“You didn’t have to live in a major metropolitan area to know,” Greene said, tapping on the Midwestern portion of an interactive U.S. map and pulling up a front page of the Indianapolis Star, among 15,000 articles in the database reporting atrocities against Jews as they happened.
National news outlets, from Time to Cosmopolitan, covered not only the rise of Nazism, but its inherent threat to Jews.
Hollywood erased Jews from fictional depictions of the Nazi threat. Why were those refugees hanging around Rick’s in “Casablanca”? What drove them across the Mediterranean, exactly? Why is exposing the Nazi Bund in the United States so personal for Edward G. Robinson in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”? It’s never made clear.
Theories have been advanced to explain these anomalies — Jewish Hollywood executives were hesitant to appear invested in any Jewish cause; some had distribution deals in Germany. What is made clear through the exhibit, though, is that moviegoers were not out of the loop: If “Casablanca,” “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” “Sergeant York” and other movies didn’t mention the Jews, accompanying newsreels did. A museum screening room runs the newsreels that moviegoers would have seen before the main feature, at a time when two-thirds of Americans visited the cinema at least once a week. These current affairs updates do not hold back: the Nazis’ prime victims, it is made clear in the newsreels, are Jews.
The exhibit contextualizes — but does not excuse — the Roosevelt administration’s failure to rescue and allow refugees into the United States.
“FDR tries to lead opinion on going to war,” Greene said, and eventually succeeds in dramatically turning American opinion in favor of intervention in Europe. As late as May 1940, more than 90 percent of the public opposed intervention. “On the refugee issue, he doesn’t lead, he follows. He spends his political capital on the war.”
The exhibit attempts to explain the reluctance to intervene, starting with stark representations of America’s racist legacy — depictions of lynchings, coupled with restrictive anti-immigration laws — and of the profound economic uncertainties seeded among Americans during the Depression, fueling anxieties about taking in large numbers of foreigners.
Haunting the exhibit are similar isolationist trends that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency and have mitigated action on behalf of Syrians under massive assault by their government and other populations in crisis. Greene said the echoes are not intentional — the exhibit is five years in the making — but are inevitable.
“The questions we ask are resonant today,” he said. “They speak to American responsibility here and abroad. What are our responsibilities to refugees, when do we intervene in a foreign war?”
The exhibit closes with an answer to these questions that is achingly poignant.
Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish refugee who coined the term “genocide,” is quoted in 1944 as saying “All over Europe the Nazis were writing the book off death ... Let me now tell this story to the American people, to the man in the street, in church, on the porches of their houses and in their kitchens and drawing rooms.
“I am sure they would understand me.”