The special exhibit on “Americans and the Holocaust” currently at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum asks: “What did the US government and the American people know about the threats posed by Nazi Germany? What responses were possible? And When?” I lost a large number of family members in the Shoah, so for quite a while, I have been greatly interested in these questions especially as they applied to Jewish Americans.
The exhibit covers the period 1933-1945 carrying me through the anti foreign entanglement weariness following World War 1; the hysteria surrounding the “Red” menace tied to foreigners and Jews; the fear of immigrants taking away jobs during the depression; and the impact of anti-Semitism on the American response to the plight of Jews in Europe.
I came away with insights into the “what” and “when,” yet I still struggled emotionally with “why,” despite the well-presented facts, more was not said and done by the American Jewish community. Could Jewish Americans have done more? Steeped in sorrowful anger, I want to blame, I want to scream, “how could you have let it happen?” But even with my heartbreaking desire for some other outcome, as I moved from 1933 to 1945 absorbing the information and data points the exhibit provided, I experienced a fuller understanding of what confronted American Jewry responding to the Holocaust and why they did not act more effectually.
If I were alive back then, I would have found myself in a country deeply anti-Semitic with 71% in 1938 saying that a large number of Jewish exiles should not be allowed to come to United States. In 1942, with the country at war, 50% believed that Jews in America had too much power. I would have been in a Jewish community divided over strategies and tactics with one side advocating for greater action, and the other worrying that doing so would create a greater dislike of Jews. If my family were already in the country for an extended time, I may have felt a distance from European Jewry. I may have felt a strong connection to President Roosevelt and the Democratic party viewing the affiliation as being in line with Jewish values.
I want to believe I would have joined Rabbi Stephen Wise at the Madison Square Garden rally protesting against Nazi outrages. I want to believe I would have been a participant in various NGO efforts to save pockets of European Jewry into the 1940s when the slaughter of Jews was fully known. I want to believe, but I don’t know for sure.
My feelings about our government’s actions are sharper and unaccepting. I may not have known that there was so much more governmental agencies and President Roosevelt as Commander-in-Chief could have done to rescue Jews, from allowing the U. S. Virgin Islands to accept the St. Louis passengers, to filling fully available visa slots, to bombing the railway lines to Auschwitz saving over 250,000 Jewish souls. I may have found myself powerless in combatting the den of anti-Semitic iniquity that was the State Department which sloughed off reports of Jewish exterminations as Jewish exaggerations. I would not have known that Assistant Secretary for War John McCloy lied when, responding to Jewish requests to bomb the rail lines around Auschwitz, he claimed a study showed that diverting the bombers was not “feasible” as they were needed elsewhere. There was no study, and as Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff writes, “at that very time (in 1944), US bombers … were already flying over Auschwitz as they bombed oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers.”
Bringing us into the present, the exhibit is faithful to a central statement made by Ellie Wiesel during the Museum’s dedication in 1983, part of which appears on a museum wall: “this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark. If there is a response, it is a response in responsibility.” With this injunction in mind, knowing that there are no absolute answers, the exhibit left me wondering: as we struggle in judging the behavior of American Jewry during the Holocaust, how are we focusing “responsibility” as American Jews today in dealing with similar political, cultural, and Jewish societal issues that impede our ability to respond effectively to threats to our own Jewish world?
Sadly, nearly 80 years post-Holocaust, anti-Semitism is still with us in the United States, whether reflected by the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre or the anti-Semitic hijacking of the Women’s March Movement by the likes of Linda Sarsour and company. I hope for all of us the question is not should they be opposed but what are the most potent means to do so.
More difficult appears to be the question of how are we focusing our responsibility in combatting Israel delegitimization in all its forms, perhaps the most insidious expression of anti-Semitism today? If Israel, as many American Jews across the religious and secular political spectrums believe, is the principal bulwark for the survival of world-wide Judaism, shouldn’t the existential threat to Israel be the central issue facing us as a community, calling us to protect our spiritual homeland, our people, with all our resources and might? If we completely understand the enormity of the word “Holocaust,” does not the array of thousands of missiles in the hands of enemies surrounding Israel and the possibility of a nuclear strike that would annihilate more than six million Jews in an instance give clanging resonance to the words “Never Again?”
I sense the answer is yes, we worry greatly, we want to act, we want to defend, but are some of the forces that tempered the American Jewish response to the Holocaust 80 years ago also in play today? When we avow “Never Again,” are there conditional factors tied to our emotions, our fears, our piques, our Jewish house divided narratives that weaken our response much as they affected the actions of our Holocaust era predecessors?
Might we be failing our vow of “Never Again” if we are not responding to all forms of anti-Semitism including Israel delegitimization by letting our concern for advancement of our political parties and ideologies attenuate the unity and power of our actions?
Might we be failing our vow of “Never Again” if we are not rejecting outright anti-Semitic canards of Jewish privilege and fifth column behavior by tamping down the determination to allay the assault on our college-age Jewish youth and on Israel because our opposition may seem too parochial and intersectionally incorrect to those with whom we make common cause on other issues?
Might we be failing our vow of “Never Again” if we are diminishing our Zionist love for Israel because Israel has so many different types of Jews who don’t share what we take to be our own Jewish religious and cultural leanings?
Might we be failing our vow of “Never Again” if we are putting Israel in jeopardy by withholding moral and financial support because we don’t like its current government, forgetting that Israel is eternal and its governments transitory?
I am alive today, a Jewish American reflecting on the Holocaust era’s past as possible prologue as I view the various threats to my Jewish world and observe my community’s reactions. I am not steeped in anger, but I am filled with much trepidation. On what frightens me, I don’t wish to blame but to ask and focus on the question, “can we do more?” What I do not want is for a future generation to scream, “how could you not have done more?”