“Americans and the Holocaust”: Libraries Keeping the Lights On

By Jenny Silbiger

The Americans and the Holocaust (AATH) traveling exhibit arrived to our island home of Oʻahu on January 28, 2022, and left a couple of days ago, on March 9th.  The traveling version of AATH was sponsored by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Library Association, and my amazing colleagues at the UH West Oʻahu James and Abigail Campbell Library received the award to host AATH in our state. You can also tour the full AATH exhibit online.

Picture courtesy of the author

The closing event of the AATH activities series in Hawaiʻi, held on March 5th, was a concert featuring a quartet from Chamber Music Hawaii playing Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temp (Quartet for the end of time). Messiaen had joined the French Army in 1939 to fight alongside the Allies during WWII. In May 1940 he was captured at Verdun by the Germans, and became a prisoner-of-war in Stalag VIII-A, a German camp, where he composed this piece. During the closing event, I was invited to share words on the importance of libraries in our communities (as the President of the Hawaii Library Association). I was part of a line up of speakers, including Hawaiʻi Lt Governor Josh Green’s heartfelt, personal remarks, Professor Magnussen sharing about the music, and the reading of Lemkin’s poem Genocide in Hebrew and English. 

Picture courtesy of the author

I still get a little bit of the ʻshiversʻ thinking about this evening. The event was a shared memory with 122 attendees, and the first time I was able to hear live music in over two years. I could feel the notes as a physical sensation.  My librarian colleagues at UH West Oʻahu said it was the largest in person event they had since graduation. I love that people in our community braved it out to show up, especially given the context of what is happening in the world right now. After the concert, folks came up to share with me how they felt the same, that we all have to keep the lights on, and that made my heart so happy. 

Below are my remarks paraphrased:

When I walked through the Americans and the Holocaust traveling exhibit last month, I learned that its fundamental goals were to ask us two questions:  What did Americans Know?  And what more could have been done?

So I was equally horrified, and at the same time strangely understanding, that yes, Americans did know what was happening abroad, news coverage was reported nationally and regionally, and yet, there was a general resistance to changing the circumstances based on that knowledge.  That while in one Gallup poll, 94% of Americans disapproved the treatment of Jews at the hands of Nazis, especially in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, a week later, 71% of Americans said no, we should not let refugees come into our country; no, we do not accept people escaping persecution into our borders. 

Author Jenny Silbiger giving her remarks

And this is where I am so thankful to the exhibit curators and librarians and archivists who did this work. The fact is—the knowledge was there, and Americans did know.  Now, there was no way that the 1930s Americans could have predicted that the hatred they were witnessing abroad would transform into the systemic genocide of over 6 million people, but the 2020s Americans can look back and see this is the case.  

In our libraries and archives, we have the written records, official government letters and memos; mementos from brave protestors taking a stand against such treatment, also artifacts from anti-semitic, anti-refugee words of hatred.  These include memorabilia from resistance rallies and marches from Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, to New York on the one hand, and also recordings of a senator in Texas testifying that there were 16,500,000 immigrants taking American jobs away from Americans, or Charles Lindbergh publicly stating anti-semitic rhetoric (and a famous children’s book author publishing political critical cartoons in response to these negative and hurtful statements), as well as systemic federal governmental blocks put in place against the refugees fleeing persecution, and the records of hundreds of thousands who languished in US immigration waiting lists to escape. Hitler was on the covers of Time Magazine and Vanity Fair, and all together, these artifacts tell the story, in part, in this traveling exhibit.

Our role as libraries is to work with our communities, and at times, tackle these difficult truths that are part of our past, because they open doors into our present and our future.  Libraries are not just books and journals and computers and chairs—not saying those aren’t wonderful things, because they are.  But what truly comes to life in libraries are ideas, truths, stories from the past and the present, and making the invisible, visible.

Even today, there are holocaust deniers in the world, and other folks who look back in time and say, well, if only Americans really knew what was happening, they would have taken action.  Including myself, or maybe a younger version of myself (way more cynical in my middle age)—thinking, wow, America was a first world power, surely, they would have done something, if they’d only known, they would have intervened earlier!

But…what if I told you, or maybe you already know, that the very laws that the Nazis used to base their discriminatory and racist demagoguery, to strip Jewish citizens of their civil rights and humanity, were actually based on the laws found in the the United States, specifically to codes authored in the southern states?  Remember, this was the era of Jim Crow, where segregation and the intermingling of white and Black were not only reviled, but illegal.  Racist murders were carried out regularly and not only were the perpetrators getting away with it, but pictures of the atrocities were printed on postcards and circulated as souvenirs through the US Postal Service.  And as a good librarian, I will share my source, Pulitzer prize winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, who published her book, Caste: the Origins of our Discontents, in 2020 (available at your public library, I borrowed the e-book version), has an extensive bibliography around these facts.  Including this observation:  that when Nazi Germany put forward their Nuremberg Laws, they themselves recognized that they did not go as extreme as the racist laws in the United States.  

So let me circle back to the importance of libraries and our role in access to ideas and access to justice.  Your friendly neighborhood library is more than the books and journals and computers and chairs.  They are safe spaces where we can celebrate story time with our children, and also research and examine very difficult truths about our lives, our country, and where we can support each other in the pursuit of knowledge for just about anything we’re humanly interested in.

Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps playing
Picture courtesy of the author

The United States still grapples with internal conflict—some say our daily life is more polarized than ever before.  But when you walk through AATH and see the slogans such as “America First,” maybe it’s not more than ever, maybe it’s that we continue to grapple with the difficulties and challenges, the darkness and the light, of what it means to be human.  We do not shy away from these conversations, in the library.  Instead, we turn the lights on.  We look into our archives, and at the call of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s project, libraries across the nation respond with over 15,000 articles of news artifacts—non-digital news coverage, to help shed light on what did Americans know.

So what can we do today, what more can we do?  What can librarians and library guests and library users do?  We can keep the lights on.  We can keep our eyes on the truth.  We can keep stories alive.  We can keep making the invisible-visible.

Let me close with a quick story. It is spring 2015, Baltimore, Maryland.  Baltimore is engulfed in smoke and glass shattered in the streets.  Protests had erupted at the result of the unexplained death of Freddy Gray in police custody, later ruled a homicide.  Protests that began peacefully, but devolved into violence and destruction, raging against police brutality for weeks.  One woman, named Carla Hayden, who was serving as the director of the public library system at the time, made the decision to keep her libraries open, specifically, the branch library that was in the epicenter of the violence.  She kept the lights on, serving her community, for her community.  The libraries were beacons and safe spaces, even amidst the turmoil in the city all around them.

Carla Hayden is now serving as the Librarian of Congress, and I couldn’t be happier that the leader of librarians, the leader of libraries, is someone who chose to keep the lights on.

I’m thankful for the UH-West Oahu James and Abigail Campbell Library for doing the same, for bringing AATH to our state of Hawai’i, to shed light on these stories. To remind us, to help us remember:  we are more than the misdeeds of the past, and that if we keep our minds and our hearts open, we can make and create a better present, a better future.

Please join me in keeping the lights on.

Author with UH West Oahu Librarians
Author with Carina Chernisky, and Alphie Garcia, UH West Oahu Librarians


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.