US reluctance to acknowledge Holocaust key part of exhibition

America Letter: Depression and report suppression dampened zeal to help WWII Jews

Jews get off train in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Photograph: Yad Vashem Archives/AFP/Getty

Jews get off train in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Photograph: Yad Vashem Archives/AFP/Getty

 

Irene Weiss remembers her 14th birthday vividly. She had entered the Auschwitz concentration camp a few months earlier.

Now 87, Weiss is one of the many individuals that appear in Irish director Gerry Gregg’s acclaimed film Condemned to Remember.

The film follows the journey of Dublin resident Tomi Reichental in his quest to find out the truth about what happened to him and others during the war.

His journey leads him to an uncomfortable reckoning with the forces of racism and exclusion in contemporary Europe, from Srebenica to modern-day Hungary.

Weiss and Reichental met in Germany during research for the film. Though they were interred at different concentration camps in Europe, their search for truth and justice brought them together more than half a century later.

Earlier this month, they were reunited on stage in Washington DC for the film’s US premiere.

Weiss is one of many Holocaust survivors who settled in the United States after the war, leaving behind a ravaged Europe to build a new life in America.

But the US was not always so welcoming.

An exhibition has opened at the Smithsonian’s Holocaust Museum in Washington which examines America’s response to the Holocaust. While more than 400,000 Americans ultimately died in the second World War, the country was initially reluctant to get involved – and to confront the humanitarian horrors unfolding in death camps across Germany and eastern Europe.

Franklin D Roosevelt came to power in 1933 – the same year as Adolf Hitler – and was immediately confronted with the Great Depression. There was little appetite in the United States to lift immigration limits that had been introduced in the 1920s and to help the thousands of Jews desperate to leave Europe – despite widespread coverage of events in Germany in American newspapers.

No extra places

As Europe moved closer to war, and the Nazis’ targeting of Jews intensified, Roosevelt convened a summit in Evian, France, to forge an international response to the deepening refugee crisis. But to the dismay of Jewish groups in America, the conference yielded little, with the US agreeing simply to issue all visas allowed under existing laws rather than offer extra places.

This unwillingness to respond to the deepening crisis in Europe persisted as US entry in the war became inevitable.

In Congress, a Bill in February 1939 to admit 20,000 refugee children never made it to a vote.

Later that year, the St Louis, a ship carrying 900 mostly Jewish refugees, arrived in Cuba but was refused entry. Sailing close to the coast of Miami its crew and passengers sought refuge in America but the ship was turned back and returned to Europe. Many of its passengers died in the Holocaust.

The exhibition shows how this reluctance to confront the Holocaust persisted, even when Americans entered the war after Pearl Harbour.

By 1942, the US administration knew about the existence of concentration camps.

‘Greatest crimes’

The state department comes in for particular censure in the exhibition. A damning report by US treasury officials presented to Roosevelt in January 1944 found that the department had deliberately suppressed reports about the extermination of Jews which termed it “one of the greatest crimes in history”.

But while the exhibition takes a harsh look at th US’s conflicted response to the Holocaust as it was unfolding, the museum also highlights the role played by American soldiers in liberating Europe in 1945. Among its most powerful collections is the video footage of the army’s first encounter with concentration camps and the desperate bid to save those still alive.

For survivors such as Anna Grosz, it is this aspect of America’s involvement in the war that is most important. Now 92, Grosz is one of several Holocaust survivors who volunteer at the Smithsonian museum.

As she tells me on this quiet mid-week morning in Washington, she was transported to Auschwitz with the female members of her family in 1944. Her mother and two sisters were sent to the gas chambers while she and her remaining sisters were sent to work.

After the Allied victory she returned to Romania with what was left of her family. “There was no life for us there,” she recounts. She moved to the US in 1964, securing a job as a seamstress and building a new life as an American. As she looks back, she is thankful to the US. “My sons received a college education, built good careers and happy lives. For that I am ever grateful to this country.”

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