There was palpable tension on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, as I started my third week of work at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Mandel Center promotes educational initiatives and research into the history of the Holocaust, human rights and genocide, but that morning, thoughts about my own research were displaced by my increased awareness of the security presence in and around the museum.

It’s possible no more security personnel than usual were present, but I couldn’t ignore that weekend’s protest to challenge the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument and the events it set into motion. The Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., had attracted representatives of white supremacist and white nationalist groups, many of whom carried tiki torches while chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”; it culminated in the death of Heather Heyer — a lifelong campaigner against hate — when an apparent Nazi sympathizer drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. I couldn’t help but think about the weekend’s violence in relation to the museum’s mission; the museum itself had been the target of an anti-Semitic and terrorist attack in 2009 that resulted in security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns’s death after an 88-year-old white supremacist opened fire at the museum’s entrance.

The Nazi Past in the American Present

I was at the Mandel Center as a follow-up to my participation in the annual Jack and Anita Hess Faculty Seminar hosted by the center and museum in January 2016. The seminar brings together nearly two dozen college and university educators from the United States, Canada and Europe to discuss the latest research and pedagogical approaches. The 2016 seminar, “After the Holocaust: Teaching the Postwar World,” was led by historians Michael Berkowitz and Norman J.W. Goda. They explored the Holocaust’s long shadows as visible in the postwar experiences of displaced persons, the challenges related to restitution and changes in the pursuit of justice from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in 1945-46 through recent efforts to hold John Demjanjuk — a defendant in four court proceedings relating to crimes he committed as a Nazi collaborator — and others accountable for their roles in a genocide perpetrated more than 70 years ago.

“Passport for Freya Frieda Maier” from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection.
“Passport for Freya Frieda Maier.” March 17, 1939. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, gift of Sonja Geismar and Lynn J. Maier.

In addition to learning about these aspects of Holocaust history and discussing strategies to incorporate this material into lesson plans, I viewed exhibits, visited the Mandel Center’s library and photo archive, and learned about the efforts of the museum’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center. That week proved rewarding and informed my approach to teaching a course in German history, so I leaped at the opportunity to return.

During that second, longer stint at the museum, I explored the possibility of creating an interdisciplinary course focused on the history of genocide and the legacies of the Holocaust. I also researched ideas for one of my favorite courses that I teach, “Nazis to Nazisploitation,” which is part history of the Third Reich and part history of the Nazi past in American politics and popular culture.

In the first half of the semester, students learn about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the relationship between Nazi racial and foreign objectives, and the implementation of genocidal policies during the Second World War. The second half focuses on uncovering the ties between American and German eugenicists in the 1930s and the emergence of the Holocaust in American consciousness, as well as trying to make sense of the evolution of Nazi representations in American culture, from Charlie Chaplin’s turn as Adenoid Hynkel in the 1940 film “The Great Dictator” to the increasingly ubiquitous Hitler memes.

A semester-long project requires students to track and analyze Nazi encounters in their daily lives — on TV, in movies such as “Inglorious Basterds,” or references in the news or on social media, for example. The course’s premise is that Hitler, the Nazi regime and the Holocaust exercise a profound but evolving influence on American society and culture, one that can be measured in part through references to and representations of these historical figures and events in contemporary American culture. Although the number of examples varies by student each semester, the volume of encounters indicates it is quite difficult to live a life separate from the Nazi past, given the apparent omnipresence of Nazi references in contemporary America.

Passengers aboard the MS St. Louis
“Passengers aboard the MS St. Louis.” May 13, 1939 - June 17, 1939. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Dr. Liane Reif-Lehrer.

Working with the Mandel Center’s staff and research fellows, I learned about recent additions to the museum’s collection, the latest trends in Holocaust studies, and the ongoing efforts to digitize and expand access to primary source material. My most engaging experiences were interacting with the survivor volunteers who participate in the series “First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors,” staff an information desk and work in the museum’s library. Their accounts left an indelible mark on me, especially in the wake of the heartbreaking news coming out of Charlottesville.

Given the apparent omnipresence of Nazi references in contemporary America, it might seem unnecessary to create a course on the Holocaust, yet the deliberate deployment of such references in Charlottesville and alarming stories such as The New York Times’s “Holocaust Is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds” suggests a need to strengthen our understanding of the past and its impact on our present. The survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and conducted in February 2018, concluded that “there are critical gaps both in awareness of basic facts as well as detailed knowledge of the Holocaust.” Among the findings: 45 percent of those surveyed could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto, while 66 percent of surveyed Millennials were unable to identify Auschwitz. These figures are disheartening, especially as Holocaust survivors who can bear witness pass on.

Viewing such results in relation to the present political and cultural climate underscores the importance of institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the ongoing efforts of the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, and the material that I teach. In his preface to Night, survivor Elie Wiesel warns that “to forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

I look forward to returning to the museum to visit the exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust.” Understanding how Americans reacted to the rise of Nazism and persecution of Jews during the Third Reich strikes me as an increasingly relevant and necessary reminder from the past.

Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Education Kraig Larkin came to Colby-Sawyer in 2011. He holds an A.B. from S.U.N.Y. Albany and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University. His research explores the connections between public health and consumer culture in modern Germany and America, the presence and impact of Nazi figures and symbols, and the history of American popular culture.