by Rafael Medoff
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has just published a 2019 calendar which focuses on the museum’s new exhibit about Americans’ responses to the Holocaust. The only problem is that two-thirds of the calendar has nothing do with Americans’ responses to the Holocaust. It’s a small but striking illustration of a disturbing bias that has crept into some of the museum’s work in recent years.
Several of the months in the calendar are illustrated by photographs of the possessions of European Jews who immigrated to America during the Nazi years: a little girl’s dress, a teenager’s chess set, a teddy bear in which a family hid its jewelry.
Poignant images, to be sure, but they reveal little about America’s response to the Holocaust. In a sense, they are even misleading, since their captions fail to explain that these immigrants were the lucky few who managed to get through the harsh immigration system which the Roosevelt administration used to keep out most refugees.
Likewise the photograph of a typewriter from the 1930s, adorning the month of March. The headline is “Small Town Triumph,” and the caption tells of a sermon by a Connecticut pastor in 1937 that helped block the creation of a local training camp by the pro-Nazi German-American Bund. Rev. M. Edgar Lindsay deserves credit for speaking out against the Bund,, but opposing fascists in Southbury, Connecticut hardly qualifies as a response to the persecution of Jews in Germany, which is what the calendar is supposed to be about.
Moreover, showcasing Rev. Lindsay’s action without mentioning the broader context is highly misleading. Sadly, most U.S. Christian clergy in the 1930s and 1940s—Protestant and Catholic alike—showed little interest in the fate of Jews under Hitler. But you wouldn’t know that from the Holocaust Museum’s calendar.
Several months are illustrated by mementos of American servicemen from World War Two. There is a page from the diary of a Jewish prisoner of war (April); an American flag sewn by a Holocaust survivor and given to a GI (July); the camera of a soldier who took photos of Buchenwald after it was liberated (September); the prayer shawl of a Jewish chaplain in Europe (October); and a songbook from a U.S.-administered Displaced Persons camp (November).
Such images would be relevant to an exhibit focusing on the postwar period, but they are at odds with head curator Daniel Green’s description of the “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit: “We frame this exhibition with two questions: what did Americans know [and] what more could have been done?”
It’s remarkable that a calendar purporting to illustrate “American responses to the Holocaust” says almost nothing about the man most responsible for determining America’s response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He appears just once, in the August caption, alongside an English-Spanish poster urging all Americans to “fight for victory.”
The caption quotes President Roosevelt declaring: “We are all in [this war]. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history.” Stirring words, but what do they have to do with Americans’ responses to the Holocaust?
The May section of the Holocaust Museum’s calendar is headlined “Small Acts of Generosity” and shows a can used to collect pennies for the “Children’s Crusade for Children.” According to the caption, the money the American children donated “benefited the United Jewish Appeal and other organizations.”
Once again, slippery wording makes for sloppy history.
The organizers of the “Children’s Crusade” were not responding to the Holocaust (which had not yet begun), nor specifically to the suffering of Jewish children in Poland following the September 1939 invasion of that country by the Nazis. The crusade was, in fact, launched in April 1940, following the exodus of thousands of Finnish children (to escape the Soviet invasion of Finland) and the mass evacuation of children to the British countryside during the German blitz of London that spring.
Publicity for the ‘crusade’ listed numerous countries, both in Europe and Asia, whose children would be aided by the pennies. The UJA was just one of an array of charitable groups of various denominations, each of whom received a small portion of the money. For the calendar to single out the UJA implies that the campaign was an example of “Americans’ responses to the Holocaust,” which it plainly was not.
This is not the first time that a U.S. Holocaust Museum calendar has taken something which was not a response to the persecution of the Jews and attempted to portray it as if it was. Something similar happened in the 2005 calendar, too.
That year’s edition featured the scholar and diplomat James G. McDonald, whose diaries the Museum had recently received. The page for February took a diary entry in which FDR expressed concern about Germany’s role in an upcoming disarmament conference, and passed it off as if the president was expressing concern about the mistreatment of German Jews. Not many purchasers of the calendar were likely to go look up the actual diary entry and find out the truth.
A calendar is not particularly important in the scheme of things, given its limited circulation; of much greater significance is the “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit, which large numbers of visitors to the Museum will view. But the calendar offers a revealing snapshot of the exhibit’s flaws. Scholars have pointed to the exhibit’s whitewash of Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Jews, its omission of key historical facts and figures (such as the aforementioned James McDonald), and its promotion of the fallacy that there was little the U.S. could have done to save many Jews. Those kinds of distortions do not belong in any history museum, much less one funded by American taxpayers.
(As published by the History News Network – September 15, 2018)