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Americans, the Holocaust, and the Power of Unexpected Places

A large panel includes paragraphs of text under the large words "Americans and the Holocaust."

Entrance to the Americans and the Holocaust exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo: Joel Mason-Gaines, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

When I began curating the special exhibition Americans and the Holocaust for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum five years ago, I knew our research team would need to dig into hundreds, even thousands, of archival boxes at the National Archives and Records Administration, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, and dozens of other repositories. I did not expect that our visits to historic sites in West Branch, Iowa; Independence, California; and Oswego, New York, would so profoundly shape the exhibition’s narrative.

West Branch, Independence, and Oswego are not the first places one thinks of when researching Holocaust history, of course. When asked to name a site associated with the Holocaust, the college students I teach usually conjure up images of Auschwitz-Birkenau, perhaps the most iconic location of Nazi Germany’s plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. Some well-traveled students mention museums and memorials throughout Europe, from Warsaw, Poland, to Normandy, France, and many points in between. Yet visits to a Quaker-run hostel in the heart of the Midwest, a relocation camp in the mountains of California where Japanese Americans were forcibly detained, and a historic fort along one of the Great Lakes that housed European refugees at the end of World War II played critical roles in the exhibition’s development.

Although I had researched the experiences of people who passed through all three of these sites—by reading the secondary literature, watching oral history and documentary films, and speaking to many living witnesses—the power of place during these visits affected me in ways both tangible and intangible. Just “being there”—walking the grounds, taking in the surroundings, considering the climate, mapping the paths for arrival, learning from local residents and stewards of these sites—allowed me to understand the history differently, sometimes in ways that remain difficult to adequately describe. Yet each visit, unexpected at the start of the research process, proved important to understanding the history and texture of American life during the 1930s and ’40s.

Quakers opened the Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, Iowa, in 1890. For four decades, the boarding school educated students, intending to keep them free from what the school’s website describes as “early knowledge of, or contact with, the evils of the world.” The effects of the Great Depression devastated Scattergood, as it did so many American institutions. In 1931, two years after the depression began, Scattergood Friends School closed its doors temporarily due to low enrollment. School leaders hoped the closure would last for only one year, but the school was still shuttered seven years later when a group of college-aged Quakers in the state suggested to the American Friends Service Committee that Scattergood become a haven for refugees. From 1939 through the spring of 1943, some 186 refugees from Nazi Germany passed through Scattergood, most staying for about six months as they assimilated to life in the United States and prepared to become self-sufficient. Scattergood reopened as a boarding school in 1944 and continues to operate today.

In October 2015, I visited Scattergood with my colleague Rebecca Erbelding, another historian on the exhibition’s research team. Arriving on the school’s grounds, I immediately thought about April 15, 1939, the day the first group of refugees from Nazism arrived there. Many had come from Vienna, a cosmopolitan European capital that contrasted in so many ways with this rural community in Iowa. Some had also been imprisoned in Dachau, a concentration camp near Munich. What must have been going through their minds when they arrived? Relief at their escape from the danger of Nazism, surely, but perhaps also some bewilderment at what their lives would be like at this site that had been a Quaker boarding school. I had seen photographs of West Branch’s Main Street in 1939, as well as photos of refugees arriving at Scattergood that spring, working the farm, and eating in the dining hall. These photographs came to life in different ways as Rebecca and I had breakfast at a restaurant on that same Main Street, drove the gravel road from town to the school, walked the rocky terrain of the farm, and talked with current Scattergood students over lunch during our visit. Being there was revealing. Seeing the relationships between buildings on the campus that stood on the site in 1939 and remain there today, considering the distance between the town and the campus, as well as talking to administrators and students who still rightfully take pride in Scattergood’s history mattered in ways that are hard to quantify. While not measurable, the experience felt essential to us. Yet, it also left me frustrated, wishing that I could travel not only in physical space but also back in time to this site unmediated by 75 years.

Four months after visiting Iowa, my colleagues Michael Abramowitz and Belinda Blomberg joined me for a visit that felt much more ominous—to the Manzanar National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service (NPS), near Independence, California. In 1942—just months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor—Manzanar became one of ten inland camps set up by the U.S. government to incarcerate people of Japanese ancestry. Our research team decided to include stories of Japanese-American relocation in the exhibition to help visitors understand how the fear of internal enemies and the intensity of American prejudice led to egregious violations of citizens’ rights during wartime.

We drove for more than three hours north and east from Los Angeles International Airport to Manzanar, which sits between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Park. During our drive, my colleagues and I gained a deeper appreciation of how remote this camp still is today—and how much more remote it must have seemed to the prisoners forced to relocate there in 1942. On the January day that we visited, the wind whipped across the camp’s grounds violently. The temperature was in the low 40s, and I thought about how different conditions there are during the summer, when temperatures soar to more than 100 degrees at 4,000 feet elevation.

We were welcomed to Manzanar by NPS’s Chief of Interpretation at the site, Alisa Lynch. After we viewed the orientation film and exhibitions, she drove us around the perimeter of the camp. We stopped at multiple locations to view the remnants of Japanese gardens and ponds, created by the Japanese-American citizens who lived there during the war. As we explored together, she told us about archaeological digs on the site and lesson plans created for teachers, but I could only half listen. I was overwhelmed, trying to process the contrast between the natural beauty of this location and the unnatural violation of Americans’ rights that had occurred here. After studying the horrors of the Holocaust for more than two decades, I hardly consider myself naïve about such violations of human rights. I had read. I had studied. But walking the grounds of Manzanar was as eerie and disturbing an experience as I’ve ever had at any historic site. One of our last stops was the cemetery, built on an old peach orchard just outside the barbed-wire fencing that surrounded the camp. Fifteen prisoners from Manzanar were buried there when the camp was operating, and six grave sites remain there today. A large concrete monument sits at the center of this makeshift burial ground, with Japanese characters that read “Soul Consoling Tower” on the front and “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943” on the back.

Nine months later, Rebecca and I traveled to Oswego, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario. A fort has been present at this site since the French and Indian War, in the mid-eighteenth century. Many of the current buildings date to the fourth iteration of Fort Ontario in the 1840s. One hundred years later, a U.S. government agency called the War Refugee Board found haven for 982 refugees from Nazism at the fort. It was the only time during the Nazi era that the U.S. government brought a group of refugees to the United States outside of the existing, restrictive immigration quotas. In truth, the refugees were not admitted as immigrants when they arrived at the new “Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.” They were instead identified as guests being held at a “free port.” They had no legal standing in the United States, even though they were safer from harm than they had been in Italy, where they had been immediately before Oswego. These refugees had been required to sign papers promising that they would return to Europe when the war ended. Fortunately, this would not be their fate—the Fort Ontario refugees were admitted to the United States as immigrants in February 1946, nine months after war in Europe ended and 18 months after they arrived in Oswego.

The fact that 982 refugees were coming to Oswego, New York, was well covered by the American press in 1944. Universal Newsreel filmed their arrival at the shelter. The August 21, 1944, issue of Life magazine devoted five pages to a story about the effort, with photographs of the refugees registering at the shelter, getting settled, and speaking to residents of Oswego through the barbed-wire fencing that surrounded the camp. In 1942, Life had obfuscated the realities of Manzanar, calling it a “scenic spot of lonely loveliness” for “Japs,” but in 1944, it noted that the Fort Ontario refugees had been made destitute by Nazism and that some had been sent to concentration camps because they were Jewish. (By contrast, when the May 7, 1945 issue of Life first ran pictures of atrocities at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald—one day before Americans celebrated Victory-in-Europe Day—the magazine failed to mention that many of the victims of Nazism were Jewish.)

The Historic Site Manager for New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Paul Lear, took us on a tour throughout the historic fort, pointing out a memorial for the refugees erected in 1981 by the Syracuse Pioneer Women/Na’amat and the Jewish Community of Central New York. We also visited the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, an entirely volunteer-run organization located just outside the boundaries of the fort.

During the visit, Rebecca and I reflected on how porous the borders between the town and fort seemed today. The absence of perimeter fencing there made the historic site at Oswego seem much less ominous than Manzanar, where fencing and reconstructed guard towers dominate the landscape. From all the photographs we had seen, however, we knew that the refugee shelter in 1944 had been surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and we eventually asked Paul Lear if any section of the fence was extant. He led us to a border of the fort’s edge that abutted a sparsely wooded area. There, he showed us some of the fencing that had surrounded the camp, keeping refugees in. To our surprise, he then asked, “You want us to cut you a piece of the fence for your exhibit?” There was only one answer to that question!

After friendly negotiations between a federal museum and a state historic preservation office, New York State loaned a section of that fence for the Americans and the Holocaust exhibition. In its original site, the fence was overgrown with bushes, accessible to climbers, and enduring all the elements. As an artifact, it is displayed on a platform, alarmed for security, and dramatically lit.

A large barbed wire fence appears with display text that reads "America 1945."

A section of the fence from the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo: Joel Mason-Gaines, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Visits to each of these sites, unforeseen at the beginning of the research process, became essential to how our research team conceived of the exhibition. And each of these stories resonated for us as we walked the grounds of historic sites at West Branch, Independence, and Oswego. The exhibition features refugees aided by the American Friends Service Committee, and it follows one American postal worker in Iowa who contacted staff at Scattergood as she tried to help a Jewish refugee escape from Vienna. (He did not survive the Holocaust.) It shows examples of the vile, anti-Japanese wartime propaganda and it lets visitors struggle with the legacy of Japanese-American removal. Near the end of the exhibition, visitors see newsreel footage and artifacts, including the fence, telling the story of refugees brought to the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter, and, hopefully, prompting visitors to ask what more might have been done by the U.S. government for other victims of Nazism.

Daniel Greene is adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University, an OAH Distinguished Lecturer, and curator of Americans and the Holocaust, a special exhibition that opened in April 2018 and remains on view through 2021 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. A web version of the exhibition may be found at www.ushmm.org/americans.

See our archive for more essays on museums and exhibitions as well as the American experience during World War II and the history of the U.S. southwest as a World War II training site.

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