Holocaust Museum Highlights Philly Couple

Entrance of “Americans and the Holocaust” special exhibition (2018-2021). U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

What did Americans know about Nazism and the Holocaust, and when did they know it?

These are two of the central questions a special exhibition at the Washington, D.C.-based United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Americans and the Holocaust,” seeks to explore.

The exhibition, which opened in April and will be featured through 2021, has been in the works for five years, coordinating the timing with the museum’s 25th anniversary. And there’s a local historical connection.

“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,” Director Sara J. Bloomfield said in a statement. “‘Americans and the Holocaust’ will challenge visitors to think about both the missed opportunities to save lives and the impact of those few individuals who took action.”

The exhibition provides a chronological exploration of American history from World War I and the Great Depression through World War II, and continually asks what Americans knew about the rise of Nazism, how they knew it and how they responded along the way.

Exhibition curator Daniel Greene, an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University, cited resources displayed such as opinion polling about Nazism and the government’s responses to it, as well as those of the media and Hollywood.

For instance, a 1938 poll asking “Do you approve or disapprove of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany?” received a 94 percent response of “disapprove.” Yet 71 percent also answered “no” to “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” Eight percent said “no opinion.”

Key societal elements like isolationism following World War I, rising xenophobia — manifested by the harsh immigration restriction laws passed in the 1920s — anti-Semitism and segregation also played a large role.

“Understanding the context should help visitors understand why rescue of Jews was never a priority,” Greene said. “We wanted to take the widest lens look at America that we thought could be taken in order to show the range of responses of all Americans at the time.”

The exhibition also highlights several stories of refugees and veterans, which Greene called one of the biggest privileges of working on the project.

While Greene noted Americans seeking to aid refugees was not necessarily the mainstream, there were still many who tried to help.

One such example was Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who, in 1939, were sent by Brith Shalom to rescue 50 Jewish children from Nazi Germany.

“Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus (center) pose with the 50 Austrian children they are bringing to the United States.” June 1939 | United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, gift of Steven Pressman.

They planned with the State Department to select children whose families were already on the waiting lists for U.S. immigration visas, the museum’s website reads, as gathering the necessary paperwork and receiving visas would be much easier.

The United States immigration laws only allowed 27,370 German immigrants to enter the country each year. In January 1939, there were at least 240,000 people born in Germany on waiting lists for U.S. immigration visas.

After the Krauses gathered financial affidavits from their friends, which guaranteed the children would be supported after entering the U.S., Gilbert Kraus set off for an annexed Vienna, with his wife joining a few weeks later.

With the aid of Philadelphia pediatrician Robert Schless, who accompanied them, the Krauses chose 50 children between the ages of 5 and 14 — 25 boys and 25 girls.

They traveled with the children to Berlin to obtain their visas and set off for America, arriving in New York on June 3, 1939 via the SS President Harding.

They took the children to Collegeville, where they stayed at the summer camp Brith Sholomville. Many children were reunited with their families, who were able to get visas and come to America; others were placed with foster families. Two children lived with the Krauses and their own two children while they waited to reunite with their parents.

Six-year-old Friedrich Lipshitz’s parents sent this postcard to their son about a month after the Krauses arranged for his immigration to the United States, June 13, 1939. | US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“It was important to us to show visitors that some Americans took extraordinary risks to aid refugees, and the Krauses are two of those people who did that,” Greene said. “We’re not trying to say they’re within the mainstream — they’re really the outliers. But we want people who come through the exhibition to engage with difficult questions, and one important question is why would people like the Krauses take such a risk? Risk their own lives as Jews, go into Nazi-controlled territory and try to rescue children they never met. What motivates people to do something like that?”

As the Krauses had the same information as everyone else, the exhibition aims to dispel the common belief that Americans knew nothing about what was happening in Europe.

“There’s still a tendency in this history to say Americans didn’t know anything, Americans didn’t do anything,” he said. “So it was important for the museum’s exhibition both to show that Americans had access to a lot of information and some people like the Krauses took extraordinary risks, even though, again, they were not representative of the mainstream in America at the time.”

The exhibition is timely, as questions about  Americans’ roles and responsibilities remain relevant.

“There are enduring questions in this exhibition,” Greene said. “What are Americans’ responsibilities to refugees? What are Americans’ responsibilities to people targeted for murder in a genocide? How do Americans understand or debate their responsibilities to get involved in a war most Americans consider a foreign war?

“We hope that visitors will get engaged with thinking about their own roles and responsibilities as American citizens as a result of encountering and learning more about this history.” 

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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