Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

"What They Saw at the Holocaust Museum"

by Philip Gourevitch

New York Times Magazine, Sunday, February 12, 1995

                              Philip Gourevitch is a contributing
                              editor of The Forward in New

The ticket line outside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington forms two hours before opening time. Waiting amid the crowd, I try to read a magazine but a photograph stops me: bodies swirling in water, dead bodies, bloated and colorless, bodies so numerous that they jam against each other and clog the stream. The caption explains that these are the corpses of victims of the tribal genocide in Rwanda.

Looking up, I see a group of museum staffers arriving for work. On their maroon blazers, several wear the lapel buttons that sell for a dollar each in the museum bookstore, buttons printed with the slogans "Remember" and "Never Again."

I put away my magazine and go to the museum cafe for coffee. There, I meet Virginia Slemker of Dayton, Ohio, and her sister, Sue Thornbro of Sterling, Va. The women, both in their 50's, tell me they share a longstanding interest in the Holocaust, a chapter of history, they explain, that is full of associations in the contemporary world.

"Abortion comes into mind for me," Slemker says, "because there are so many that are being killed and, I think, because of the innocence of the victims."

Thornbro agrees. Like the Germans who allowed the Holocaust to happen, She says, today's Americans "don't want to go and see and know what's happening in the clinics."

The sisters describe themselves as Protestants who believe that the Bible is the literal truth, so I raise the question that has provoked intense theological debate in the past half century: Where was God during the Holocaust?

I've thought about that," Slemker says. "You can't have a Santa Claus attitude toward God. He allows everything. He allows the tragedy and He allows the mountaintops. He was there. And some did come through, and that was him too. I don't know why. Ask God. Interview God."

"Sin brought it into the world," Thornbro says. "It was Adam who made the choice, and history will repeat itself. In America, we've been having religious freedom since we started, and now if you're a Christian, you're persecuted."

"You have a picture of Christ on your desk in the workplace," Slemker says, "you can get a lawsuit."

In the museum's permanent exhibition, I stand beside a video monitor displaying ghastly ages of Jews brutalized and dismembered by doctors. 'Pretty neat, huh?" I hear a teen say to his friend. "I mean, really sick."

Emerging from the gallery, I meet Michael Sien, 69-year-old retired dry cleaner from Cranbury, NJ, who is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and of Nazi concentration camps. 'The experience is torture," he says, "because I went through all these things." In the ghetto, his father was shot before his eyes; his mother and sister were killed at Treblinka; his wife, Ruth, who is with him at the museum, was hidden as a child by Polish farmers. "So I live through it again," Sien tells me. "And it hurts."

Sien's intimacy with the history displayed here is unimaginable for most visitors, the majority of whom are not Jewish and are too young to remember the events of midcentury. In visitor comment books outside the exhibition, one reads statements like "This was great" and "We really enjoyed learning about all of the horrible things that happened in Nazi Germany."

Near these books, I find a group of 13- and 14-year-olds from Watertown, Mass., on their eighth-grade class trip to Washington. Their first reactions to the museum are single words: "Awesome ... Intense... Creepy ... Interesting ... Graphic ... Cool."

"The pictures are disgusting - it wasn't a joke," Robin Shea says. "But it seems like a long time ago because it was all black and white. It was a long time ago because, like, now we all get along together."

"It makes worries like what you wear today seem so stupid" reflects Rebecca Neel.

The Watertown kids have a busy schedule in Washington - the Smithsonian, Arlington National Cemetery, Ford's Theater, the Presidential monuments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Announcing this itinerary, one of the students, Peter Vitello, remarks that the Holocaust museum seems "out of place in Washington."

"Yeah," Rebecca says, "everything else is patriotic, but this sort of subtly says war is stupid, so it's sort of subtly against the rest of Washington and also fits in. It was fun."

Since its opening in April 1993, 3.5 million people have come to the Holocaust Museum, more than twice the expected number. Despite complaints of overcrowding, a survey found that 94 percent of the visitors describe their experience as "extremely favorable" or "very favorable," an approval rating most museum administrators can only dream of.

But what does it mean to have a "favorable" encounter with this chronicle of absolute evil?

At a time when those who carry the memory of the extermination of European Jewry are passing into history, the Holocaust Museum was built so that visitors would continue, in the words of the museum's motto, to "bear witness" to the horrors of the Nazi past. The museum's overwhelming popularity testifies, however, to the great difference between bearing witness to history and the documentary representation of historical events at half a century's remove.

The general public, after all, is not lining up each day to gain firsthand experience of the Rwandan genocide or the "ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Rather, as Nona Reiss, a 47 year-old homemaker from New City, N.Y., tells me: "We know the atrocities that happen in the world right now. And what are we doing? Sitting in a museum."

The children from the Vision Christian Academy, an apostolic church school in Baltimore, knew nothing about the Holocaust before they came to the museum, and none knew any Jews. These black fourth- and fifth-graders have just spent an hour in "Daniel's Story," an exhibit that tells the fictional story of a Jewish boy's ordeal during the Holocaust. They say it was a disturbing experience, that it made them sad, and scared, and sometimes angry.

Early on in "Daniel's Story," the first person voice-over says: "Have you ever been punished for something you didn't do? We were." The 8- and 9-year-olds from Baltimore tell me they identify with Daniel because they know what it's like to be forced to clean up their rooms or to have someone threaten to steal their bicycles. They cannot really imagine the extremity of the Holocaust, which is so beyond their own experience, and their grasp of the history is uncertain at best.

"The Germans thought they had the right just to take over the country because the Jews were different," Marquita Cole says. "They were Jealous because the Jews were almost ruling the country."

Like Virginia Slemker and Sue Thornbro, these children all say they believe in God, and again I ask how God could have allowed so many people to be killed so unjustly.

"They didn't pray," a boy named Antwaun Dillard declares.

"But many did pray," I say. "Right to their deaths."

"Then they weren't believing," Marquita says.

"Maybe," Chanel Steele suggests, "they did something wrong and they didn't repent."

"It's a 'jealous God,'" Antwaun says, quoting Exodus. "Terrible. He's jealous because people worship golden calves, idols."

The children recognize the injustice in Daniel's story but they explain it away by presuming that the Jews were misguided in their faith. As their teacher, Deidre Lynn Allen, puts it: "I believe that the Jews are God's chosen people. But they don't recognize that Jesus Christ is the messiah, that He came already. If they had, I think the Lord could have heard. their prayers a lot more. In a way, they praying to a God that they don't really know."

Allen has told me that her school's trip to the Holocaust Museum is part of a "multicultural diversity program" to study other cultures and tolerance. But how, I ask her, can you teach if you teach that the tenets of another are wrong?

"It's similar to when we teach about Native Americans," she says. "Since we are a Christian school, we recommend that the children pray that the people of that country would come to know Jesus Christ, and that they pray for their needs."

Every one I spoke with at the museum said they liked the place - everyone but a New Zealander who called it "one-sided Jewish propaganda," and even he seemed pleased that the museum was there to confirm his prejudices. In my encounters and in the comment books, I found that visitors often said they would never forget the museum- It occurred to me that the Holocaust maxim, "Remember," may be acquiring a new meaning with the passage of time. What we cannot remember easily, we must imagine through representation, and our response is less immediately to the event than to the medium that has conveyed it to us.

It is not the Holocaust that is suddenly such a huge popular draw, but the Holocaust Museum and the Holocaust movie, "Schindler's List." The creators of these artifacts, and many who celebrate them, tend to indulge in vainglorious rhetoric, claiming that an affirmative public response to representations of the Holocaust places today's secondhand witnesses firmly on the right side in the struggle of good against evil.

My conversations in Washington suggest that the public may not be so easily led. The world is too much with us for anyone to conclude that genocide can be confined to a museum. The visitors I spoke with about the exhibitions talked more of the present than of the past, and their diverse reactions reflect the beliefs and attitudes they brought to the museum as much as anything they discovered within its walls.

At different moments in time, particular historical events and personalities come to exert a special fascination on the public imagination. Today, the Holocaust is invoked but nobody speaks much of Napoleon; few read Gibbon's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"; references to the Roaring 20's, so popular in the hungry 80's, are rarely heard, and the ghost of Richard Nixon has come in from the cold. Such fashions in popular history invariably tell us more about our own tines than about the piece of the past that is suddenly turned to as a mirror.

As Americans observe the bloody unravelings of the post-cold-war world, the Holocaust Museum provides a rhetorical exercise in bearing witness to dehumanization and mass murder from a seemingly safe distance.

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