A new exhibit that opens Monday at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum aims to honor a founding mission.
Five years in the making, “Americans and the Holocaust” contextualizes attitudes in the U.S. during 1930s and ’40s persecution and mass murder of Jews in Europe.
Twenty-five years ago, when the building opened, noted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel introduced the museum not as an answer to the horrors of genocide but to pose a glaring question: How could this happen?
The American responses “must and will be explored thoroughly and honestly,” Wiesel said in a 1979 address before President Jimmy Carter, who had tasked a commission, chaired by Wiesel, with recommending an appropriate memorial for the 6 million lives lost.
The historical evidence in the museum collection in Washington, D.C., detailing what America knew and when, dispels myths that its actors didn’t have enough information about the magnitude of Nazi Germany’s campaign to intervene, says Daniel Greene, a historian and the curator of the exhibit.
“It doesn’t mean that Americans knew that Nazism was going to lead to mass murder, but to assume the story wasn’t there isn’t correct,” Greene says. “The difficult question we want people to ask is: If Americans had this information, why didn’t the rescue of Jews become a priority?”
“A failure of imagination”
Often, the response to news of the atrocities against Jewish people was disbelief. “People sometimes talk about our response as a failure of imagination — we can’t imagine something that awful is happening,” Greene says.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a central yet complex character in the exhibit, echoed this attitude in an address in 1938. It came a week after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, saw Nazi-coordinated attacks on thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Germany and other areas. In his speech, Roosevelt said, “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.”
Even though visitors to the museum walk through haunting exhibits, historians say there’s no substitute for hearing stories from those who bore witness.
Margit Meissner, a lively 96-year-old Holocaust survivor, senses a renewed urgency to share her story. “It affects the listener differently than when they just read about it,” she says. “They hear you speak and something opens up in their minds, which is a different method than when you read something or when you see a movie because it’s a human being.”
These opportunities are fading fast. The number of living Holocaust survivors (many in their 80s and 90s) has fallen to an estimated 500,000 worldwide, according to the Claims Conference. The impending extinction of firsthand accounts is contributing to a collective amnesia for Holocaust memory, particularly among younger American generations.
Meissner is frightened by those who don’t open their eyes to the history. “If you look at the percentage of the population that felt that what was happening to the Jews was wrong, and the majority thought so, they thought they should do nothing about it,” she says. “And this could be said today.” She points to the surge of Islamophobia and bigotry against Muslims in America, who have been similarly cast as a homogeneous group.
American response, in context
Understanding questions surrounding American responsiveness, Greene says, requires an awareness of the historical context. A nation grappling with national security concerns and focused on economic recovery during the Great Depression set tight restrictions on immigrants. In addition, “Our own xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism shaped our immigration policy as early as the 1920s before the Nazis came to power,” Greene says.
In gauging these attitudes, visitors can wade through chronological checkpoints of public opinion polling during the era. For example, results consistently show that at least two-thirds of Americans disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews but simultaneously were not willing to let in more exiles. The lone fact that Gallup was polling these kinds of questions suggests the vein of the American consciousness.
An interactive map archiving crowd-sourced newspaper coverage shows that if Americans were reading news at the time, much of it was from a wire service with headlines varying state by state. “You didn’t have to be a New Yorker or in D.C. to be reading stories about Nazis’ persecution of Jews,” Greene says.
Still, “the German killing was kept very secret,” Meissner says. Even when she worked at a federal government agency, the Office of War Information, she recalls, she was in the dark about world events. Meissner, who had the unique skills of speaking Portuguese and Czech, was hired as a translator.
“In the Office of War Information, I didn’t really know what was going on in the United States,” she says. Her job was propaganda control in OWI’s publication division. “My job was to look at the Czech translation and the Portuguese translation and make sure that the propaganda content was in accord with State Department guidelines,” she says. “The most important thing [from the government’s perspective] was to make sure that everyone understood that America was winning the war.”
But it was also the first time she digested the horrors of war, Meissner says, upon seeing photographs of Jewish corpses in 1945 while working at OWI. “Because there were lots of rumors, but there was never any confirmation.” The State Department notoriously misled the U.S. about wartime intel. Plans for the Final Solution — the Nazi plan to kill the Jewish people — were initially dismissed as a war rumor, but the State Department was ultimately pressured to confirm it and act.
Americans understood Nazism foremost as a threat to democracy: “FDR has to convince the nation to go to war to defend democracy,” Greene says. “But they’re not going to go to war to defend victims of fascism.”
Before mass killings began, Americans saw evidence of the persecution of Jews through rich description on radio, in print or newsreels of ghettos, but what they didn’t see were Jewish people. “I don’t think there would be a lot of sympathy for Jewish people in the United States,” Greene says. “I think we’re as interested in Hitler and how this democracy fell apart abroad.”
Author Peter Novick noted in his 1999 book, The Holocaust in American Life, that Jewish suffering was not singled out by government agencies in the fight against Nazis.
“The task of American wartime propagandists was to portray Nazi Germany as the mortal enemy of ‘free men everywhere.’ … The Office of War Information resisted suggestions for a focus on Jewish victimhood. Leo Rosten, head of the OWI’s ‘Nature of the Enemy’ department and a popular Jewish writer, responding to a suggestion that atrocities against Jews be highlighted, said that “according to [our] experience, the impression on the average American is much stronger if the question is not exclusively Jewish.”
Born in Austria and raised in Czechoslovakia, Meissner currently lives in Bethesda, Md., and is now one of almost 80 Holocaust survivors who volunteer at the museum. Although the museum’s definition of a survivor includes people displaced as a result of Nazi policies, Meissner is reluctant to call herself a survivor because she never set foot in a concentration camp.
With a lot of luck, and very good friends, Meissner says, she arrived in New York in April of 1941 at age 19, after having narrowly eluded the Nazis in France, three years since first leaving home in Prague.
“When I came to the United States I knew nothing about America,” says Meissner, who left school in 10th grade. “So I had to experience it, and we had no money.” Meissner’s family members, as refugees, were forced to surrender their assets. Beyond that, the refugee system was expensive and difficult to navigate. Her plight was common. As American journalist Dorothy Thompson aptly described the value of an immigrant visa to the exile, “a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”
Raised by governesses before a life full of risk-taking, Meissner had to learn how to survive. She was invited to spend a summer at Black Mountain College, an experimental college that became something of a haven for refugees, near Asheville, N.C. Like other students, she paid her board by working construction. At the time, she says, she thought it was standard work for a young woman. Now, she realizes, “It was totally abnormal.”
“Now that I know something about the Holocaust, I am absolutely shocked I was in North Carolina pulling nails out of boards so that they could be reused while they were murdering Jews in Lithuania.” But she also didn’t think she was alone. “I think the only people I knew were refugees,” she says. “I don’t think that these refugees had any idea what was going on in the German sphere of existence.”
“Making up” for it
Meissner is determined to keep her story alive. She’s the youngest of four siblings in a far-flung family separated by war. “When Hitler came to power, each one of my brothers had to find refuge someplace,” she says. Her brothers fled to Australia, Canada, Sweden and Spain.
Because the children grew up apart, they knew little about the family history. “And my own kids were just bugging me and bugging me,” she says. “You have to write something.” Their father, Frank Meissner, who was rescued by the Danish underground, had died. “And they said, you’re going to die, and we’ll never find out and you have to write about it.”
At age 80, with the help of a sharp editor, she started to share her story by writing what became a memoir — Margit’s Story — and has been doing so, ever since, by carrying on the oral tradition.
“So maybe I am making up for years and years of neglect now.”