Friday, January 16, 2015

A Museum Visit That Inspires More Questions than Answers

Years ago, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau and witnessed an emotion-filled reunion inside the camp in front of the firing wall.

They were survivors from the camp 50 years prior, now walking through the camp together.

That day has never left my mind, and the words of Elie Wiesel ring true in my ears that as teachers, we must be witnesses and pass that along to our students.

To commemorate this month marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is hosting a special exhibition.

A cold and rainy day lent the perfect solemnity to my experience, and I was led through the exhibit by a wonderful guide named Scott, himself a Jew with familial ties to the Holocaust. (The Holocaust was the "state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.)

The premise of the current special exhibit is to question the role of complicity, while emphasizing the fact that we are all individuals who make decisions. Whether through action or inaction, we ultimately decide. And when we know, when we learn, we have a responsibility. Just what that responsibility is, according to Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author, is individual: "Each individual must answer that question for himself or herself."
A Roma Gypsy wagon; a Jewish footbridge in Poland where Jews
were not allowed to walk on the "non-Jewish Polish streets"; Raul Hilberg's
quote near the entrance of the Special Exhibition. 

The museum as a whole is filled with rich artifacts and photography. It will take hours to absorb all that is contained within. There is a long and thorough history of anti-semitism and subsequent behavior throughout history until what seems to be the most well-known era of Adolf Hitler and his imposed beliefs.

Hitler’s actions were systematic, inhumane and complexly heartbreaking. But how was he able to carry out all that he did, unless he had help? With not merely a blind eye, but onlookers and bystanders who played a more active role. There were 600,000+ Jews in Germany, within a population of 6 million. Although a small percentage, the Jews were active in their communities, they were intellectuals, successful businessmen/women, Nobel prize winners, and thinkers who were deeply religious. Museum photos abound with Jews and non-Jews intermingling—dancing, hanging out, sharing social space…so it seems the Jews were tolerated when they were needed. Otherwise, they became ready scapegoats for misfortunes.
Titles for various parts of the exhibition, and photos from the
Ejszyszki/ Eishishok Shtetl in Lithuania.  
The Museum provokes questioning and thinking, so plan for the time to absorb its offerings if you go. There is no way I can do their exhibit justice, but I will provide a peek. As you read some of the questions that came to my mind, think how relevant they are, still, today in 2015.

When does a lie become truth?

How does someone go about de-basing a mass group of people? De-humanizing them?

Why did some Jews send relief to their peers who needed it, while others felt new Jewish immigrants would threaten their own livelihood?

How can a piece of paper with a stamp on it make all the difference
between life and death?

A prominent question was “Does presence make one complicit?”

Between 1933-1941, after Hitler had come to power, there was nowhere to send the Jews away from Germany. There were 70-80,000 Jews in Warsaw, one of the highest numbers in Eastern Europe at the time, so there was no more room.  The United States shrugged it off, claiming it was a European problem.

Something had to be done, in the eyes of Hitler. Photographs show Germans, delighted to partake in auctions of items that had belonged to the Jews, while others watched from their windows with bemusement as Jews were taken away en masse—saying nothing, not bothered in the least. As if they were leaning out to have a pleasant conversation with their neighbor.

Other photographs depict neighbors executing their Jewish neighbors. Thousands of atrocities were carried out on Jews by those who knew them, and had often spent social time together. Still others showed pictures of neighbors who reported Jewish friends and neighbors “because it was the right thing to do”, because they feared punishment, because they “didn’t want to lose [their] job”, or because “it was the law so I had to”. Some turned in the Jews to “teach them” a moral lesson. Jews and non-Jews who were in relations were informed one day that their Jew/ non-Jew relationship was illegal, and public examples were made of these couples. Hair was crudely shaved from the male and female’s heads before being paraded throughout town, thanks to such arbitrary laws.


Lest you think that everyone was complicit in the Jews’ demise, there is an entire wall of names of people from many different countries who hid their Jewish neighbors or otherwise helped them. (picture on the right) This newlywed couple in the picture on the left is one example—they hid as many as 36 at once in their home and dug escape tunnels into the woods, despite the dangers. When asked why, the husband simply claimed, “My wife and I were brought up to have respect for life.”


There are thousands of others who did the same, even German soldiers and police who hid Jews and helped them escape. Diplomats bucked the system to provide visas to Jewish refugees, despite the danger of doing so. There’s even one story of a young non-Jewish man who was arrested for wearing fake decorated Stars of David on his clothing to mock what he considered the absurdity of it all. Others joined the underground war against the Germans, and there were many Jews who conducted uprisings themselves, even in the camps. Courage and bravery had many faces. Not everyone was complicit. 

There are so many photos, testimonies, and thought-provoking artifacts in the museum itself. This special exhibition is a great place to start before exploring the permanent exhibitions. In the rest of the museum, you will find information about Hitler's rise and service as chancellor prior to the war, and how he managed to mobilize an entire nation via hatred. 

From there, you can see how thinking and policy "evolved", from persecuting the Jews, to separating them in harsh ghettos, to annihilating them. 
A view from inside the train car that held up to 100 people,
sometimes more, on torturous journeys in extreme
conditions. Many deaths occurred from the journey alone.

German freight cars held as many as 100 people, while entire trains
usually carried anywhere between 1,000-5,000 people. The weight
would slow travel down to 30mph, making the journey even worse.

Shoes from victims of the Holocaust. 
Near the end of your museum visit, you can see more stories of those who risked punishment and death to save the Jews, and chronicles of what has happened postwar to find some sense of justice for those who perished and those who survived. There are more resources to learn about how current issues relate, such as events in Darfur, Syria, Congo, and Sudan, because genocide has not stopped. 
In the Hall of Remembrance. 

There is a children's tile wall and remembrance hall, along with an exhibition about real events based on children's experiences specifically--a good place to spur conversations with younger teens. 

Learn more at their website: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They have resources for educators, translated materials, photos and information galore. Discover opportunities to act and respond, and to explore your own understanding. 

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