Click photo to download. Caption: The Hall of Witness at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Credit: Alan Gilbert, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.
When President Bill Clinton stepped to the podium at the opening of the United
States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, most of the
audience no doubt expected him to offer the usual generalities about the
importance of not forgetting the past. Instead, Clinton went much further,
delivering the harshest words ever uttered by an American president about our
country’s response to the Nazi genocide.
Clinton made clear
that the response of the U.S. to news of the Holocaust was an important part of
the events that need to be commemorated and taught. He said on April 22, 1993
that the construction of the museum would “redeem in some small measure the deaths
of millions whom our nations did not, or would not, or could not save.” He
referred to America’s lethargic response to the Holocaust as constituting
“complicity” in what happened.
Moving from general criticism of America’s response to very specific references
to the policies of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, Clinton
continued, “For those of us here today representing the nations of the West, we
must live forever with this knowledge—even as our fragmentary awareness of
crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done. Before the war
even started, doors to liberty were shut and even after the United States and
the Allies attacked Germany, rail lines in the camps within miles of militarily
significant targets were left undisturbed.”
It was the first time an American president had ever explicitly criticized the
response of the U.S. government to the Holocaust. Many years later, President
George W. Bush, viewing an aerial reconnaissance photo of Auschwitz at Yad
Vashem, remarked, “We should have bombed it.” And President Barack Obama said
last year that the Nazis were able to carry out the Holocaust in part “because
so many others stood silent.”
But it was Clinton’s specific and detailed commentary on the American response
that really cemented the idea that the U.S. Holocaust museum has an obligation
to frankly confront our own government’s record during those years.
Click photo to download. Caption: The 15th Street/Eisenhower Plaza entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Credit: Max Reid, USHMM Photo Archives.
The museum’s 20th anniversary, which is being marked this spring with a series
of commemorative events and exhibitions, is an appropriate time to consider how
the museum has met the challenge that Clinton presented.
Consider, for example, the story of the refugee ship St. Louis, the infamous
“Voyage of the Damned.” That episode shines a particularly troubling light on
America’s response to the plight of the Jews under Hitler. It was therefore
very much in keeping with Clinton’s mandate that the museum undertook a
comprehensive research project to trace the fate of each of the 937 passengers.
The final study, authored by museum staffers Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller,
was published by the museum in 2006, in a book titled Refuge Denied. It
chronicled the sad story of how the St. Louis, after being turned away from
Cuba, hovered off the coast of Florida, hoping to be granted haven by
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