The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) has opened a new exhibit, “American Reactions to the Holocaust,” that examines how Americans responded to Nazism in WWII. The exhibit features two timelines that track the rise of Hitler’s regime and the United States’ response, as well as artifacts from both periods.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC is hosting an exhibition called Americans and the Holocaust that will run through 2023. There are no tickets needed for anyone aged 11 and above.

Is it possible that the United States might have prevented the Holocaust? The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s newest exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust,” examines the country’s reaction to Nazism and tries to address this issue.

Following Hitler’s ascent to power, many German Jews tried to flee to the United States. However, when they arrived by ship at American ports, they were turned away due to stringent immigration rules established by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. 

New Exhibit at Holocaust Museum Examines American Response to Nazism in WWII The State Department’s Breckinridge Long restricted permits for Jewish refugees, fearing saboteurs among them. (Getty Images/Bettmann)

Long, who oversaw the State Department’s visa office, claimed national security concerns as a reason for deliberately reducing the amount of Jewish refugees coming to the United States. Long, like many Americans, thought that among the fleeing refugees were spies or saboteurs. To restrict assistance and rescue operations, Hitler lied about refugee acceptance statistics in the United States and even suppressed incoming information to Washington about the wholesale slaughter of Jews in Europe.

Beyond Long’s sabotage, “Americans and the Holocaust” reveals evidence of American apathy and racism toward African and Asian Americans within its borders, including legalized segregation, Jim Crow laws, and Japanese American internment, as well as apathy toward news reports of the Nazis’ increasingly violent anti-Semitic rule. 

Visitors may traverse a chronology of historical exhibits including coverage of Nazism in American newspapers, newsreels, and video that demonstrate the growing pressure on Washington to act as Hitler’s murderous campaign peaked via interconnected rooms. Each part includes interactive exhibits, photographs, films, documents, and short documentaries on Nazism during the war. 

Throughout the 1930s, while news stories focused on Nazi Germany’s mistreatment of its own people, the Roosevelt administration remained uncomfortably quiet. A representation of a 1938 survey showing that two-thirds of Americans thought that German Jews were either “totally” or “somewhat” to responsible for their own persecution reveals one potential explanation for this. 

While the exhibit reveals the reasons for Washington’s quiet, it also raises concerns about why Roosevelt did nothing despite early awareness of Germany’s crimes, and why Americans remained dubious despite tales of death camps. Is it possible to hold America accountable? According to the museum’s website, “although the United States alone could not have averted the Holocaust,” “more could have been done to rescue some of the six million Jews who were murdered.” 

“Americans and the Holocaust” exposes the sad reality of what occurs when people with the capacity to assist fail to reach out to the most vulnerable members of our planet’s population.

This review first appeared in World War II Magazine’s October 2018 edition. To subscribe, go to this link.

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