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How Reading Wrecked the Holocaust (Museum)

February 26, 2006

My head is still spinning after taking a handful of students from my ethics class to the United States Holocaust Museum on Wednesday. I’ve been once before as a recipient of an unofficial but brilliant tour, but this was my first chance to try on the role of facilitator/educator. Which isn’t really that difficult, the Holocaust and the Museum being what they are: I could pretty much point my students toward the entrance and let them see and feel this atrocity for themselves. Which I did, more or less, letting them experience it and providing a little reflective listening (though I did gather my chicks twice to help them think things through a bit).

So what I mostly did was walk through myself and have an imaginary conversation (in my head) with three authors.

The first was my friend Tim Cole, who is a Holocaust scholar (and the subversive guide of my first museum visit). His work on memorializing is brilliant and deeply appreciated, even as it has wrecked all manner of museum visits for me forevermore. One book in particular levels a great critique of the US Holocaust Museum: that it is a little too US, and not enough Holocaust. That this particular experience of memorial would attempt to insulate us from the stark horror of this genocide by helping us to objectify the perpetrators and victims of it, and by encouraging us to view it from afar. To wit, at this particular museum, we are asked to view the Holocaust from the perspectives of (incredulous) American liberators of the death camps, disembodied surveyors of European history, witnesses of violence ranging from pogroms to gas chambers, and from the perspective of the victims themselves. What we are not asked to do, at any point, is to imagine that we might have been the perpetrators of this abomidable behavior.

Which we most certainly might, and which was the point I made to my students as we started our tour. We might have done it, and we most certainly might have allowed it to happen. And as I walked through the exhibits and looked at photos and footage of racist violence, my eye was drawn not to the center of the images and the victims, and not to the perpetrators of the violence standing around them, but to the blank faces on the margins. People who stood by and gave their tacit endorsement as this evil spread. Who were these people? And for that matter, who captured these images, including those of people being summarily shot and falling into mass graves? Why did nearly every country deny immigration or even hospitality to European Jews, and why did many other countries join in the genocidal efforts?

But was I any better for the heaping up of self-condemnation and guilt on myself? I heard another (unofficial) tour guide dismissing an entire section of the exhibit (“American Response to the Holocaust”) as a kind of falsity, and it further fueled my fire. And while I think that having a sense of guilt about the Holocaust — and about current cases of genocide in the world– is a good start, I’m not sure I walked out of the USHM a better person, or in a better place. Of what value is guilt?

My other conversation partners were Miroslav Volf and Shane Claiborne. Who were kind of fun to think about together, and who have both challenged me recently with regard to pacifism and nonviolence. Volf, with his observation that victims of oppression tend to reciprocate that same oppression on their (real or perceived) oppressors when given the opportunity. And Shane, with his level-headed assertion that our prevailing understanding of politics, violence, and retribution suffers from a simple lack of imagination and thoughtful engagement with the issues.

I heard these voices wax and wane as I moved deeper into the museum. At the one hour mark, I felt frustration at my fellow participants as they spoke too loudly or moved too quickly (or slowly, in turn). At the two hour mark, my anger was bald and free-floating. At the end of the museum, there was a exhibit detailing the liberation and destruction of the death camps. As I watched video footage of bodies being drug from the concentration camps by Nazi officers and guards, I wished retribution and painful punishment to be meted out on them, post haste. Who did they think they were, to participate in such atrocities? Why did they think that there could be any reason that any person at any time could ever think that there would be any way that they would be judged innocent of such crimes? What could they possibly be thinking, standing there looking in the camera with expressions of shock? WTF? And I watched as those who had been recently liberated hurled insult and anger upon them, and I wanted to hand them a weapon. Evil like that doesn’t respond to reason, I thought, evil like that must be stopped, at any cost. If I did it, I hope someone would open up my skull in short order. Period.

And I realized that this kind of anger and indignation might be seen as the solution to such evil, or it might be the source of such evil.

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4 Responses to “How Reading Wrecked the Holocaust (Museum)”

  1. kate says:

    Oooh. Yeah. I like that last point.
    And: “of what value is guilt?”
    Makes you wonder.
    I love how there is so much to chew on, so many angles, that I get something new every time I go back. As a mom, I see something different. After living in Germany, I see something else. Etc.
    But, yeah. What are we supposed to retain? If nothing else, perhaps that it happened. It really did. And it could happen again. That seems to be a point they’re driving hard.

  2. Ryan says:

    What a mental, emtional, and spritual wrestling match you have engaged me in Mike. Man!

  3. Rosemary says:

    sin…amazing the mark it makes on humanity; and on our minds.

  4. Rebecca says:

    The strain over the issue of whether or not retribution ‘works’ has really been on my mind lately. Often an act of violence will stop the perpetrator in the act but at some level that kind of justice always has a very ugly undercurrent. The ripple affects are often felt in other ways if not directly in retribution. Violence just does something to the human soul. We can always come up with an upright reason as to why we _must_ harm another but in the end we have to be honest about the damage we do in the process of doing our “right” things.

    Retaliation, even when meant to just stop the offender and prevent others from thinking they’ll get away with something (be it flipping off the guy that cut you off in traffic or killing Hitler) is an outcropping of our alter-ego as Victorian style “parents of the world”. We think that we can mete out lessons to all those we encounter and enforcing punishments to “teach them a lesson” when often the only lesson learned is to hate you and want to do you more harm.

    As a parent I’ve been trying sometimes to practice “finding the third way” which means rather than my will diametrically opposed to my child’s, finding creative ways together that we can both have peace and happiness. Sometimes that’s not possible but more often than not it is. The lesson learned is that we can cooperate. In fact for me cooperation and understanding the other person’s point of view is a big value I concentrate on with my kid (some days it works, some days it doesn’t), but for me cooperation is far more important than obedience. In the end the result is the same but neither of us has to be humiliated, angered or otherwise, we just have to strive to learn and understand the other person’s needs and wants in the situation and find a creative solution. You’d be surprised at the creative solutions a 2 year old can come up with! Usually they’re wacky but sometimes they’re something I completely hadn’t thought of.

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