Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

As it happens, I did not go to the "die-in" on Thursday at noon, but instead spent the day at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Museum website has a page devoted to Darfur. They have declared a "genocide emergency" in Darfur and will be opening a special exhibit on Darfur on August 2. Given the large number of visitors who come to the museum every day, I think this will be a very effective educational and political statement.

I was very impressed by the museum. I have been to other museums that tell the story of the Holocaust -- Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City, which has an excellent permanent exhibit on Jewish life in Europe before the Second World War, as well as exhibits on Jewish life since 1945. One of the interesting aspects of the museum was the attempt to go beyond the impact on the Jewish community and show how the Holocaust affected other people -- for example, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses.

There is currently a temporary exhibit called Deadly Medicine, which traces the history of Nazi eugenics, forced sterilization, and the T4 program to kill handicapped people, men, women, and children, including the retarded and mentally ill. This program was the first to use gassing of victims and served as the prototype for the extermination camps. I had read about this history, but walking through the exhibit, seeing the devices used to measure people and place them into separate "races," and then going through a tiled room with photographs of children killed by the T4 program was chilling. I remember reading one quote from a man who had worked in one of the children's homes where they were not sent to be gassed, but instead were starved to death or injected with fatal substances. He called the place a "concentration camp for children." I must say that I find this incomprehensible. I know how people rationalized to themselves that what they were doing was for the sake of "racial hygiene" -- but I don't understand how they could face the children whom they were torturing or killing and go through with their actions. It seems to me that it goes against a deeply-seated human instinct to protect children.

After going to that exhibit, I went to the permanent exhibit, which traces the history of the Holocaust from the Nazi assumption to power to the liberation from the death camps. I could have spent the entire day in the exhibit, if I had had enough time, but instead I was able to watch and read only some of the information. For example, the exhibit on the Warsaw Ghetto had a video loop that showed both still pictures and film of the ghetto. I kept looking at people's faces. In the section on the mobile killing units -- the Einsatzgruppen that followed the German army in the invasion of the Soviet Union -- there was a video made from film of the shootings. Who would film mass murder? I don't even understand why footage like this exists.

In the section of the exhibit devoted to the death camps, there were several unnerving and deeply chilling artifacts -- for example, a railway car of the same type used to transport prisoners to the death camps. The exhibit was set up to permit one to walk through the car -- I could not. I put my head in from both sides, instead. It was much smaller than I had expected, and if the doors had been closed, there would have been very little light, or even air coming in. There was a pile of shoes taken from prisoners at the Majdanek camp. There was the inside of barracks taken from Auschwitz. I remember reading when the Museum was being designed, that the intention was to find actual artifacts from that time and place. When I heard about this, the idea repelled me. It seemed to me that this meant that the museum visitors would be having some kind of vicarious experience of the Holocaust -- something both impossible and voyeuristic. However, I did not have that feeling in the museum -- instead, it seemed to me that the intention was to give Americans a fragment of the sense they would have if they visited the sites of the concentration camps in Europe: to visit a memory, not to re-enact it, even in imagination.

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