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Northwestern historians shape latest exhibit at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

President Schapiro, campus Hillel delegation get a preview during a recent visit

Northwestern contingent at Holocaust museum
President Morton Schapiro and the Northwestern contingent at the Holocaust Museum.

EVANSTON - President Morton Schapiro and a delegation from Northwestern University’s Hillel recently got a preview of a new exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that opened on Monday and was curated by Northwestern adjunct professor Daniel Greene.

The special exhibition, ‘Americans and the Holocaust,’ examines the motives, pressures and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war and the persecution and murder of Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. It opened April 23, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Last week, President Schapiro and Michael Simon, executive director of the Northwestern Hillel, led a special behind-the-scenes tour of the new exhibit, personally guided by Greene, who is guest curator of the exhibition.

Simon said the trip last week was organized by Hillel, and the small delegation included students, faculty, alumni, parents and colleagues from Hillel International. They were joined by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a Northwestern alum (’83, ’88).

This is the most comprehensive exhibition exploring the many factors — including the Great Depression, isolationism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism — that influenced decisions made by the U.S. government, the news media, Hollywood, organizations and individuals as they responded to Nazism, according to the museum.

Dispelling myths

“Americans and the Holocaust dispels myths about this history, such as the misperception that Americans lacked access to information about the persecution of Jews as it was happening,” the museum said in a news release. “It examines why their rescue never became a priority for the U.S. government — even as the country made great sacrifices to defeat Nazism.”

“Visitors will be surprised at how much Americans knew about Nazism and the Holocaust and how early they knew it,” says exhibition curator Greene. “The exhibition also shows what else was on Americans’ minds as they learned about these threats, from great economic insecurity to the isolationist sentiment in the wake of World War I and national security fears during World War II. We transport visitors back into that tumultuous era, so that they might consider these events without the benefit of hindsight.”

Greene’s principal research areas are public history, Holocaust history and memory, U.S. history and modern Jewish history. He is former vice president for research and academic programs and currently a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Northwestern ties

In another Northwestern connection to the exhibition, Greene also worked with Northwestern undergraduate Anna Rennich during the summer of 2014 through the Office of Undergraduate Research's Undergraduate Research Assistant Program. Rennich used magazines in the Northwestern Library to conduct her initial research, and later, after graduating in 2015, she was hired and worked as an exhibitions researcher at the museum until July 2017. Now she is attending law school at the University of Virginia.

For Simon, the tour offered an opportunity to put Hillel’s vision into action.

“While Hillel offers Northwestern students a safe haven to explore and express their Judaism in meaningful ways, at the same time, we strive to create a brave space that instills in our students the courage to explore what it means to be Jewish and human, to be Jewish and American, and to grapple with controversial topics on campus and in the world,” Simon said.

“And that's why we worked with professor Greene, the Office of the President and the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies to bring a delegation of students, staff and faculty to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,” he added.

“We went to tour this astounding new exhibit with the intention of bringing the experience back to campus,” Simon said. “Our impulse to explore how the fears and pressures presented in the exhibit echo in the headlines today, and to consider our own community’s responses then and now, reflect Hillel’s aim to make Jewish identity and values relevant, tangible and even urgent in the lives of our students and campus.”

Exhibit highlights

According to the museum, the exhibition:

  • Presents public opinion polling from the era to examine how World War I, the Great Depression, isolationism and anti-Semitism shaped American attitudes and both reflected and affected leaders’ decisions.
  • Includes new research and artifacts illustrating the many obstacles European Jews faced on both sides of the Atlantic, while they tried to flee Europe and enter the United States.
  • Chronicles what the U.S. government—from President Franklin Roosevelt to Congress and government agencies—did and did not do to respond to Nazism and the persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
  • Sheds light on how much information was available to Americans in their local communities, both early on and during the war years, about the threat of Nazism and the Holocaust. Some of the local coverage featured in this exhibition was gathered through a Museum online crowdsourcing initiative, “History Unfolded,” engaging schools and individuals across the country, who helped build the largest online archive of American newspaper coverage of key events during the Holocaust. “History Unfolded” shows just how much information about Nazism and the plight of Europe’s Jews was available to Americans.
  • Shows that much of Hollywood tended to portray Nazism as a threat to democracy without mentioning the plight of Europe’s Jews.
  • Presents the stories of individual Americans, many of whom took actions that went against the grain at the time. This includes extraordinary stories of Americans who dared to rescue Jews from Europe.

“Since opening our doors 25 years ago, the museum has asked difficult questions about Holocaust history and encouraged people to reflect on their roles and responsibilities in society today,” said museum director Sara Bloomfield, a Northwestern alumna (’72, H’14). “Americans and the Holocaustwill challenge visitors to think about both the missed opportunities to save lives and the impact of those few individuals who took action.” 

Greene pointed out that Rennich worked on many of the research details essential to the production of the exhibit, demonstrating “how the summer research opportunity through the Office of Undergraduate Research led to a job at the museum.”

For her part, Rennich said, “As an American studies and history major, my professors encouraged me to explore primary sources as a way to better understand the events that we studied in the classroom. My work as a researcher for the museum illustrated the importance of that approach to learning.

“As Dr. Greene’s research assistant, I read hundreds of magazines in search of articles about the rise of Nazism,” she added. “While I was struck by the number of stories that I found, my assignment allowed me to experience them in the context of many more articles about the Great Depression and national security concerns. 

“The exhibition does a great job of conveying this tension between the availability of information that we now know is relevant and other concerns that may have kept Americans at the time from acting on that knowledge,” Rennich observed. “My research certainly taught me to be a more careful consumer of information, and I hope it has the same effect on visitors.”

The exhibition honors the mandate in the institution’s founding charter that the museum put special emphasis on Americans’ responses to the Holocaust, according to the museum’s release on the exhibition.

The 1979 President’s Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by museum founding chairman Elie Wiesel, states that the American experience “must...be explored thoroughly and honestly. The decision to face the issue constitutes an act of moral courage worthy of our nation.’’

Americans’ responses to the Holocaust have always been presented throughout the museum’s permanent exhibition, and this exhibition goes into greater detail, the museum said.

“Americans and the Holocaust” will be featured at the museum until 2021.

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