Several days ago, I had the opportunity to visit the topic of last week’s discussion: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Although not my first visit, I was eager to view the museum through fresh eyes, having read and heard so much about it in the years since I had last visited. I was especially interested to see how the things we discussed in class were or were not made evident in the space. During my visit, I saw many of the reasons we gave for the existence of the museum: the “Never Again” mission, measures to disprove Holocaust deniers, and attempts to expand the implications of the Holocaust into the present, and Jewish identity and its ties to the Holocaust.
Carved on the exterior of the museum is a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower which says “The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering…I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.” The museum has used Eisenhower’s words as a cornerstone for building their exhibits. Both the permanent exhibit and the special exhibits included an enormous number of facts, quotes, testimonies, oral histories, photographs, artifacts, and films. The museum tries to offer as accurate a representation of the Holocaust as they can. They do not lessen the suffering people went through, nor do they exaggerate, as there is no need to do so. They simply present the horrifying facts and let them speak for themselves. The overwhelming amount of evidence cannot be ignored or written off. As we discussed in class, this is also a way of disproving Holocaust deniers by offering solid proof.
It surprised me to see that many of the larger implications and tie-ins to the present appeared in parts of the museum other than the main exhibit. A special exhibit on genocide discussed more recent events such as the Rwandan genocide and demonstrated that genocide is still a very real threat. “Never Again” was printed on mugs, bracelets, and magnets in the gift shop, but was absent in exhibit spaces. A powerful poster urging visitors to “Think about what you saw” the next time they witnessed injustice and hatred was placed outside the entrance to the building. This made me worry that some of the “sentimentalism” we discussed in class could possibly win out over serious thought about how the lessons of the Holocaust can be applied today. I would have liked to see more of this challenging and confrontational subject matter included in the exhibit itself.
The tie between Jewish Identity and the Holocaust was very evident in the museum. As we discussed in class, this is one of the driving forces behind the creation of the museum. Many examples of this existed in the exhibit, from artifacts such as broken synagogue windows and destroyed Torah scrolls to small reminders like a Mezuzah scroll in the doorway to a room. It is interesting, in contrast, that the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust have very little representation in the exhibit. Small labels and single display cases are all that can be found on the Roma people, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals. These groups are almost better represented in the gift shop than in the exhibit itself. This reminded me of last week’s readings, which dealt with similar issues of how to include non-Jewish victims in the museum. In this way too, I think we can see the influence of identity and politics on the museum.
I was glad for the opportunity to see first-hand how our readings and discussions were represented in the museum space. Despite several concerns, Overall, I was impressed with the way the museum managed such a complex topic. My visit was an emotional one, and I found myself thinking about the causes of the Holocaust and how they can be recognized and prevented in the present day. I hope that others who visited took similar things away and were similarly encouraged to “Think about what you saw.”
“Eisenhower quote – U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum” by user AgnosticPreachersKid: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eisenhower_quote_-_U.S._Holocaust_Memorial_Museum.JPG
“03.02.USHMM.WDC.4aug05” by Elvert Barnes: http://bit.ly/1YSLirT