A Story Museums Must Tell

by Rafael Medoff

Considering how much is already known about the Holocaust, it is remarkable how much new information historians continue to uncover – especially with regard to international responses to the Nazi genocide. What is equally remarkable, however, is how slow some museums are at keeping abreast of the new research and updating their exhibits. This kind of foot-dragging seriously undermines the effectiveness of institutions that have been entrusted with a critical mission. Because museums attract such large audiences and therefore play a crucial role in public education, it is particularly important that they keep up-to-date.

The case of the Bergson Group is instructive. In the 1940s, these dissident activists sponsored more than 200 ads in American newspapers, organized dramatic protest rallies, and lobbied the U.S. Congress to pressure the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Although the Bergsonites played a major role in the battle over U.S. refugee policy, they were for many years left out of Holocaust museums, even after scholars, journalists and the Jewish public had begun to pay recognition to their contribution. Whether the cause was carelessness, political bias or bureaucracy, the result was the same: an inexcusable gap in the historical narrative.

In recent years, however, new scholarship (by professors David Wyman, Monty Penkower and others ) and a groundswell of public interest have brought about a startling change. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., finally added the Bergson Group to its permanent exhibit. Newly opened museums in Philadelphia and Los Angeles included the activists as well. And this Sunday, on the 70th anniversary of the Bergson Group’s creation, Yad Vashem will host a major public symposium on “The Bergson Group and America’s Response to the Final Solution.”

The Bergson Group has at long last entered the mainstream narrative, but what about others who raised their voices in protest, even if less effectively? Museums should, for example, at least mention the handful of athletes who boycotted the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the activists who smuggled 2,000 refugees out of Vichy France in 1940-41, and the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical students who influenced numerous synagogues to hold rallies for rescue in 1943.

Recent cutting-edge research by professors Stephen Norwood and Laurel Leff deserve Holocaust museums’ immediate attention. The story of America’s response to Nazism and the Holocaust can no longer be told without mentioning their findings.

Norwood’s 2009 book, “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower,” documented the efforts by leading American universities, including Harvard and Columbia, to forge friendly relations with Hitler’s regime and Nazi-controlled German universities in the 1930s.

Leff’s work likewise constitutes an indispensable part of the story that museums need to tell. Her 2005 book, “Buried by The Times,” is the only comprehensive study of how The New York Times covered the Shoah. Research by Leff in 2006 compelled the Newspaper Association of America to publicly apologize for turning its back on German Jewish refugee journalists in the 1930s. Now Leff is preparing to unveil groundbreaking research on the response of the American medical community to the plight of Jewish doctors fleeing Hitler. How long will it take for such important information to find its way into Holocaust museums?

Not that Holocaust museums are the only institutions that need to make use of the latest work in the field. Other history museums share that obligation. It has been eight years since Prof. Greg Robinson uncovered obscure 1920s newspaper columns by Franklin D. Roosevelt – shortly before he ran for governor of New York – opposing Asian immigration to the United States on crudely racist grounds and advocating an ethnically exclusive American society. Shouldn’t the Roosevelt museum, in Hyde Park, New York, at least explore the possible connection between FDR’s writings and his attitude toward European Jewish immigration?

Forthcoming research is likely to cause more controversy, not less. My colleagues and I at the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies have embarked on a study of the response of American churches to the Jewish refugee crisis. Our preliminary findings indicate that more than a few institutions and organizations will be embarrassed by the results of the study. But that is no reason for museums to shy away from adding the new information to their exhibits.

The process of analyzing fresh historical research and correcting museum exhibits cannot be completed overnight. Museum staff members understandably need sufficient time to vet documents, arrive at responsible decisions, and prepare new texts and panel designs.

Still, more can be done to expedite the process. Whether that means involving additional staff members, bringing in outside historians, or simply making it a higher priority, museums must make it their business to update exhibits in a timely fashion.

Historical accuracy alone would be sufficient reason to do this. But much more than the historical record is at stake. After all, the ultimate purpose of every Holocaust museum is not merely to learn about the past but also to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The Bergson Group and others who promoted rescue can serve as powerful moral role models for the next generation.

In an era where genocide is very much a reality, the public should not have to wait years to learn about those who spoke out against the Holocaust and those who didn’t. That information is more than just a historical curiosity: It offers lessons that could make a real difference in our own time.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org. He is author of 14 books and editor of the new book “Millions of Jews to Rescue,” by the late Samuel Merlin. Merlin was a senior leader of the Bergson Group.

(As published in Ha’aretz, July 15, 2011)

July 2011