In 2018, the Museum will open a new special exhibition about Americans response to the Holocaust that is part of a 10-year educational initiative. The centerpiece of the initiative will be a special exhibition at the Museum to be on view between 2018 and 2022, which will also serve as the basis for a smaller traveling version for host venues both in the US and abroad. Additionally, the initiative will include the release of a documentary film, educational resources that will include lesson modules and web content, and an online citizen history educational project that has already begun entitled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust. This project engages students and the public to produce a new historical archive reporting about events of the period by encouraging archival research into local newspapers from the era.
An important component of the initiative is to avoid simplistic explanations by displaying the complexity of the relationship of Americans to the Holocaust. Museum archivist Dr. Rebecca Erbelding reflected on the Museum’s intent to show complexity and nuance stating, “We’re obviously focusing very closely on the context of the period–what were Americans absorbing at the time, how did they get information, how did they engage with it? We’re using a lot of public polling, which will be a design feature throughout the exhibit, as well as a reminder to our visitors about the temperature of the country. In the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938, for example, more than 90% of Americans polled were sympathetic to the Jews being persecuted in Germany, but this sympathy did not translate into a willingness to allow further immigration into the United States.”
One of the many unique challenges faced by Museum staff in developing this initiative, and the corresponding exhibit, is trying to develop ways to have viewers and those who use the resources of this initiative to mentally remove themselves from their perceptions or preconceived notions of the time period. Dr. Erbelding elaborated, “Many people feel very strongly about what the United States could and should have done during World War II. Many of those feelings aren’t grounded in the context of the time, or what was actually possible to do.” The desire of the Museum is clearly to avoid prosecuting America’s action in hindsight. The initiative will investigate the choices and actions of both leaders and regular citizens with a specific focus on the necessary nuance expressed by effectively contextualizing the period through helping participants understand the multifaceted influences of the era including the disruptive aftermath of World War I, the economic calamity of the Great Depression, and the recurring xenophobia and antisemitism of the times.
The teaching of perspective can be a difficult challenge for educators. The museum’s desire is to help educators and students understand the complexity of the era, and decisions made by those in power, by immersing themselves in the events of the time period and getting them to mentally separate themselves from their own current interests and potentially their own biased viewpoints of the period. In an effort to assist this process, Dr. Erbelding states, “The history of the Holocaust has often been taught separately from World War II, but the two are inextricably linked. We want people to realize that the Holocaust is also an American story. I think our biggest challenge is going to be convincing people to drop their preconceived notions about the history and try to put themselves back in the 1930s and 1940s. When they look around, there might be pieces of the story that feel familiar to us now.”
Most importantly to educators, a special emphasis of this exhibit is to inform and influence the views and perspectives of high school and college students. As Dr. Erbelding states, “In an increasingly global world, students need to grapple with the complicated question of what the role of the United States should be in the world, and what our responsibilities as individuals are to people who are different from us.”’ It is hoped that this impact will prompt discussion, not just between teachers and students, but among the national public regarding the complexity of foreign policy as it pertains to humanitarian issues.
We look forward to this new initiative and are excited that there will be yet another invaluable set of resources produced by the Museum that will be of great importance to educators, students, and the public alike.