By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Northwestern University adjunct professor Daniel Greene recalled being a young intern at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, taking oral histories from survivors the first year the museum opened a quarter century ago in Washington D.C.
The experience had a profound effect on how Greene viewed history amid the realization that relatively soon “there would be no living witnesses to this history. It motivated me to want to learn more about it.”
Today, Greene is the guest curator of a major exhibition five years in the making on America’s response to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s.
The exhibition “Americans and the Holocaust” features new research examining what Americans knew about the murdering of millions. The exhibit marks the 25th anniversary for a museum that has its strongest funding base—30,000 supporters—in Chicago.
Over 100 Chicagoans are touring the exhibition and museum in Washington, D.C. June 24-25. Accompanied by Greene, the Chicago visitors will get a behind-the-scenes look at how the museum preserves the memory of those who perished. Another educational trip is planned for Sept. 12-13.
The anniversary also honors the visit by 800 Chicagoans, led by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, to the museum’s opening in April 1993. The Chicago delegation was the first to be allowed into the $168 million museum built on donated federal land adjacent to the National Mall and funded through private donations.
“The Chicago community played a very vital role in helping to raise the funds that were needed to prove to this country that the museum was wanted,” said Jill Weinberg, Midwest regional director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Last year alone, the Midwest Chicago office raised $5.4 million at their annual luncheon.
The “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition looks at what Americans knew about what was happening from reading magazines, newspapers and watching newsreels.
“It takes a panoramic view of American society not just the U.S. government, the media, Hollywood or the average American,” said Greene, a Highland Park native who earned his Ph.D. in history at University of Chicago. His area of expertise is 20th century immigration and Jewish history.
The exhibition reveals that Americans had access to much public information about the dangers of Nazism including the persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews, Greene said. The exhibition comprehensively explores the many factors—including the Great Depression, isolationism, 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.
Greene and a research team framed the exhibition with two questions: “What did Americans know and what more could have been done?”
The exhibition also tells many new stories of individual refugees and the Americans that tried to sponsor them as refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.
One Chicago story that stands out is the family of Julius Rosenwald, who co-owned Sears Roebuck and Co. He passed away in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power, but his children, namely William Rosenwald, carried on his legacy of philanthropy by sponsoring hundreds of relatives in Germany and hundreds more during the ‘30s and ‘40s.
“It was very difficult in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration. You had to prove that you weren’t going to be a financial burden to the United States so you needed a sponsor,” Greene said. The Rosenwald family story is told through an interactive touch screen table that follows what it took to sponsor one distantly-related family headed by Richard Schwarz. He became a German teacher at the Frances W. Parker School in Chicago.
An altogether different Chicago story emerges in the exhibition with one of the most vigorous anti-war movements: the America First Committee. Founded by a group of students at Yale University in 1940, the organization relocated headquarters to Chicago where it became the foremost U.S. non-interventionist pressure group against American entry into World War II.
The exhibition focuses on the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the questions Americans faced remain urgent today, Greene said, “specifically what are Americans’ responsibilities when a democracy falls apart? How do Americans debate whether to enter a war that many Americans think is a foreign war? What is our responsibility to refugees abroad and what is our responsibility when we learn that a group is targeted for murder in a genocide? We show how Americans debated those questions in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but obviously some of those questions resonate today.”
As the museum reaches younger visitors, the hope, Greene said, is “they will be better educated citizens when they realize these questions have a history.”
A virtual form of the Americans and the Holocaust exhibition can be accessed online at www.ushmm.org/americans. For more information about the September education trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, contact the museum’s Midwest office at 847-433-8099.