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Gonzaga to host historical exhibit exploring American viewpoints on the Holocaust as it happened

An exhibit opening Tuesday at Gonzaga University will explore what Americans of the 1930s and ’40s knew about Nazism and Jewish persecution as history unfolded – and how those perspectives are relevant today.

Gonzaga University’s Foley Center Library on Tuesday will open “Americans and the Holocaust,” a traveling exhibit available in partnership with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Library Association. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

The exhibit presents factors of the time – such as the Great Depression, xenophobia and racism – that affected how the government, news media and general public responded to Nazism. Museum representatives say “Americans and the Holocaust” challenges the assumption that Americans knew little and did nothing about the Holocaust as millions of Jews were persecuted and killed.

Located in the Cowles Rare Books Room, “Americans and the Holocaust” will have displays assembled from primary sourced information from the period themed around questions including “Did Americans help Jewish refugees?” and “How did Americans respond to the Holocaust?” The displays are complemented by touchpads with videos, newspaper clippings and timelines.

The Foley Center Library is one of 50 libraries across the country, and the only one in Washington state, to host the traveling exhibit. Paul Bracke, dean of the Foley Center Library, said the exhibit is based on the larger one at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in April 2018.

“The Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies had worked with the Gonzaga Center for the Study of Hate in the past, and we’re excited to expand that collaboration by bringing this traveling exhibition to campus,” Rebecca Erbelding, historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in a statement.

While Gonzaga was originally selected out of more than 250 applicants to host the exhibit starting in March 2020, the event was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bracke said. He said Gonzaga’s application was completed with contributions from the university’s Center for the Study of Hate and other community partners.

In determining exhibit hosts, Erbelding said the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum considered the “creativity and strength” of the program plans proposed by each library, levels of community support and the library’s reasons for wanting to host the tour.

Many libraries wrote about how the exhibit could provide important discourse in light of anti-Semitic actions within their communities or a general lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, Erbelding said.

“We hope that people of all ages and backgrounds will come and learn what Americans knew during the Holocaust, how they responded, and think about what it teaches us about our own roles and responsibilities in society today,” Erbelding said.

Gonzaga’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit will also include a collection of archival material focused on hate in the Northwest. Bracke said the exhibit’s larger themes align with the university’s mission of “promoting the dignity of human persons.”

“The Holocaust is obviously an event that’s contrary to that, and so Gonzaga has a history of being involved in efforts to counter hate and bigotry and to promote the dignity of human persons,” he said. “We also felt that it’s particularly important, given there’s a history of white nationalism and bigotry and such in this region, that this be made available to the folks in this area.”

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