New Holocaust Museum exhibit challenges us to continue asking hard questions

At the dedication of the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum 25 years ago, Elie Wiesel declared that, “The Museum is not an answer. It’s a question.”

As the Museum enters its next chapter, a new exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust, challenges us to continue asking hard questions about our nation’s response to the Holocaust – and by doing so, reflect on our own moral responsibility to confront today’s humanitarian crises. Although it took place in Europe, the Holocaust is also an American story.


When we were growing up, the question of whether Americans could have done more to prevent or stop the Holocaust was based on the assumption that most good people were simply unaware of the persecution and systematic killing of Jews. But as this groundbreaking exhibit makes clear through painstaking research, access to information among the American public about the persecution of Jews was widespread. Relying extensively on artifacts and media from the period, the exhibition puts visitors in the historical context of Americans who lived through the tumultuous and uncertain 1930s and 1940s.

With contemporaneous news sources, the exhibition shows that, although the Great Depression and the war dominated headlines, news of terror, pogroms, and the tightening grip of Nazi power did break through. Even during the depths of the Great Depression in March 1933—as the new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt planned the New Deal and told Americans the only thing they had to fear was “fear itself” – news stories about Nazi Germany were included in many newspapers across the country.

Some Americans took notice. All over the country—in at least 29 of the 48 states, over 500 organizations, some representing tens of thousands of people—organized petitions that poured into the State Department and the White House protesting Germany’s treatment of Jews and urging American action.

Yet those individuals were the exception. While many Americans had heard about events like Kristallnacht, for most, that awareness failed to translate into action to help Europe’s endangered Jews.

Instead isolationism, prejudice, economic crisis, and national security fears shaped America’s timid response. The exhibit makes extensive use of polling data from the period to paint a portrait of the public mindset. In one striking contrast, right after Kristallnacht, 94 percent of people said they disapproved of the Nazis treatment of Jews in Germany, but only 21 percent said they were willing to allow more Jewish refugees into the United States.

With our historical hindsight, we leave the exhibit wondering what more Americans could have done to help the victims. Filling immigration quotas by issuing more visas or doing more to support resistance and rescue efforts could have helped thousands of Holocaust victims find refuge.

The answers to these questions remain strikingly relevant today, as our government restricts the entry of refugees while we watch the horrific slaughter of innocents in Syria, Myanmar, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the rise of strongmen leaders across the globe threatens democratic institutions and, in some cases, democracy itself.

As our own society becomes increasingly polarized along political, ethnic, and religious lines, the history of the Holocaust compels us to fight against the dehumanization of any vulnerable group. We must explicitly reject propaganda designed to exploit legitimate fears of crime or terrorism to draw ordinary people into hateful ideology against the “other”.

When haters seek to drive a wedge between groups, we can push back and say: “no.” We can, and must, stand up for all targets of hate, not just those in our own group.

By truly understanding that our humanity binds us together, regardless of our differences, we can learn to build stronger communities, despite those who seek to divide us, and work proactively as individuals and institutions to build more tolerant, humane societies.

The questions of the how and why the Holocaust happened should always haunt and challenge us. But by continuing to ask these difficult questions, and by reexamining Americans’ role in the tragedy, we will be better prepared to fight against hatred and confront the challenges of our own time.

U.S. Representatives Brad SchneiderBradley (Brad) Scott SchneiderHouse Democrat pushes back against concerns that impeachment inquiry could spark political backlash Dem Congressman discusses plan to keep the house blue The Hill's Morning Report - New impeachment battle: Pompeo vs. House Dems MORE (D-Ill.) and Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenEx-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company Republican Salazar seeks rematch with Shalala in key Miami House district MORE (R-Fla.) serve on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and are both members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.