I have been to Washington D.C. many times but not for a long time. When I traveled to our nation's capital it was seldom to sightsee. Most often it was to protest - against the Vietnam War, for nuclear disarmament, for children's welfare. I would travel to Washington to participate in Amnesty International conventions and spend time in my representative's office lobbying for human rights. Occasionally, I would find time to visit a museum. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was a favorite as well as the National Art Gallery
Oddly, I had never visited the Holocaust Museum. Odd because, as a student of human rights and as an activist I have long been interested in trying to fathom the incomprehensible cruelty of genocide and understand how to prevent it. As a Jew who lost members of his extended family in the Holocaust, its reality has never been far from my thoughts. I have read quite a few books on the Holocaust and retain a deeply felt interest in it. Yet a visit to the Holocaust Museum never found its way onto my itinerary.
Last week the time arrived. I traveled with a friend to D.C., devoting three days to museum-going. We took in the African-American Museum (worthy of a separate essay), the National Portrait Gallery (more engaging than I anticipated), and we had a special tour of the Justice Department (Merrick Garland's chief of staff is the son of my partner's friend.).
The Holocaust Museum was the centerpiece of our visit. We spent five hours touring the entirety of its permanent exhibits. Though I have always loved museums and attempt to absorb as much information as possible, admittedly I often skim the written explanatory material as much as I study it. This time, I was captivated and assiduously read almost every description adjoining every exhibit.
The immediate impression is inspired by the architecture. Beyond the entrance, one walks into a main room that is simply cavernous. It reaches up three stories and the glass ceiling is the major light source. The space is primarily barren; no exhibits here. The walls are solid red brick. I have been to Auschwitz and my immediate thought is that the interior architecture of the Holocaust Museum is inspired by the death camp. It is stark, austere, and renders a sense of impenetrability making escape impossible. The space inspires awe, not in the way a cathedral inspires awe by reaching to the transcendent, but by engendering a sense of stark emptiness and powerlessness.
The primary narrative of the museum is guided by history. Nothing, especially history, can escape the politics and perspectivalism that must inform renditions of past events as they shape current realities. In this sense, I concluded that a great deal of thought was put into how best to present and explain the Holocaust to the public. No museum exhibition, especially one whose material is so enmeshed in emotion and politics, can present “just the facts.” But I concluded that the Holocaust Museum comes as close as possible.
The museum walks many delicate, contested tightropes. I must confess my own ambivalence about establishing the museum when it was in its planning stage. The Holocaust Museum was commissioned in the Carter administration and dedicated in 1993. Public focus on the Holocaust was becoming more prominent, much promoted by the organized Jewish community. Here honesty compels me to conclude the initiative to raise the profile of the Holocaust in public consciousness emerged to a considerable degree from Jewish parochial interests. There is political leverage to be gained by the augmented awareness of the plight of Jews as victims, which they assuredly have been. Promoting the significance of the Holocaust, its extraordinary scope, and its purported uniqueness was a way of accomplishing objectives that cannot be divorced from political interests. How we understand history is ineluctably political. Also, there was increasing anxiety in the Jewish community about escalating intermarriage and assimilation. As such, within the Jewish community, elevating awareness of the Holocaust became a strategy to shore up Jewish identity.
Initially, I felt reservations about establishing a Holocaust museum on the Washington Mall at the center of our nation's capital. The edifices and monuments surrounding the Mall serve collectively as the most concentrated arena showcasing American history, identity, and values. As momentous an event as the Holocaust was, it did not take place on American soil. It thus seemed to me that a museum dedicated to the American Indian or to African Americans would be more integral and appropriate as a national museum in this most American of venues. In short, why so honor what appeared to be primarily an event showcasing parochial Jewish interests?
The museum is officially named “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” suggesting and requiring that its scope reinforce American interests and its appeal extend beyond Jewish concerns. In fact, 90 percent of its visitors are not Jewish. Official national sponsorship presents a problem. The Holocaust is most prevailingly identified as a genocidal campaign especially targeting Jews. Yet historians conclude that approximately five million other non-Aryans were so annihilated in the Nazi killing campaign, including the disabled, Roma, Poles, prisoners of war, communists, union leaders, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others. A problem lies in how to emphasize the central place of Jews as victims while including others, and yet not universalizing the event in such a way that the Jewish focus of the Holocaust is lost. Universalizing the event, ensuring that Jewish specificity is lost, itself veers toward antisemitism. It was an approach uniformly expressed by the Soviet Union in its heralding the communist victory over fascism. The fact that six million Jews were slaughtered because they were Jews was deliberated downplayed and overshadowed by Soviet propaganda.
The Holocaust Museum deals with the problem by centering itself on the fate of the Jews. But it also includes the fate of other minorities and does so by sober concentration on historical facts devoid of embellishment. Its strength is that whatever emotions it evokes, it does so indirectly. In short, its voice is nounal and not adjectival. Visitors are presented with a compounding array of photographs - of death camps, emaciated corpses and skeletal survivors, men at war, the personal possessions and relics belonging to victims, models of gas chambers and Zyklon B (the exterminating gas), Nazi leaders and soldiers, battlefields, allied politicians, Jews digging their mass graves, a model railroad car used as a transport bringing Jews to their death. And then there are numbers, huge numbers - ten thousand here, twenty thousand there - of those summarily murdered in scores of killing campaigns, and a million and a half children gassed at Auschwitz.
These images and accompanying facts appear over and over in an array of exhibits on three floors and reinforce the enormity of what occurred. But then - again, the bare facts, without embellishment, leave the visitors with their own emotions to respond as they will. This approach, I conclude, is more powerful than if the exhibits were to draw conclusions for the viewer.
The permanent exhibits begin on the third floor and are presented chronologically. Many are devoted to the rise of Nazism, its ideology, propaganda, and the methods by which the Nazis promoted their evil designs. Much information displays the place of the Holocaust within the context of World War II. One senses that the relevance of Nazism's rise could not be more germane to our current political moment, and, I conclude, this would not be lost on those touring the museum.
The culmination of exhibits on the ground floor focuses on resistance and subsequent criminal trials, and considerable attention is given to the many people who were aware of the plight of the Jews around them and became rescuers, risking overwhelming danger to themselves and their families. Their heroism is noted without elaboration as to their reasons for acting as they did. Many undertook rescue efforts to save imperiled Jews out of the simple motivation to do the right thing, leaving one with the feeling that their heroism was enhanced because of its modesty. There are displays on the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto and the fate of Anne Frank. But these events of great historical note are treated with the same muted sense of bare facticity that characterizes the tone of the presentations overall. The museum eschews all temptations toward sensationalism.
And then there are the photographs of Jews from the ghettos and villages of Eastern Europe, where the preponderance of killing took place. Women, men, children, and families. Thousands of them. They are human faces and one is left with the impression that they are not so different from us.
The Holocaust Museum is an expansive, multifaceted enterprise attracting visitors from around the world. It sustains vast archives, inclusive of many thousands of documents, photographs, and oral history testimonies. It keeps registries of survivors, engages in research, and sustains a teaching mission with many fellows in the United States and abroad.
No doubt, how the Holocaust relates to other mass atrocities is another issue of debate. A long-standing question is whether the Holocaust is unique, and comparison with other genocides is therefore off bounds, or whether comparison is warranted. I have always felt that the latter is the correct approach. For if we conclude that the Holocaust uniquely stands alone, then we logically must concede that there is nothing we can learn from it.
The Holocaust museum implicitly takes this position as well. It is to the credit of the museum that it concerns itself with genocide beyond the Holocaust. In this sense, its mission is not exclusively to record a past event but to educate in such a way as to help offset future mass atrocity crimes. For example, during our visit, the museum featured a temporary exhibit on the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. The Holocaust Museum, together with Dartmouth College, has founded and sustains The Early Warning Project, which uses advanced forecasting tools to identify countries at risk of mass atrocities.
I found it hopeful that while we were there, I noticed a significant number of young people who were present. I was also moved by the pervasive silence. Few people spoke. Confronting the enormity of the Holocaust in such stark and uncompromising detail leaves one speechless. And this is as it should be.
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Your response, Alice, was powerful and very understandable. The museum is a sacred space that moves us as few places can and do. Many thanks.
A moving account of your museum experience.