Remember What You Saw: Why the World Needs Holocaust Museums

For spring break, a few of my class mates and myself went down to Washington, DC to visit some of the Capital’s many museums. On the second day of our trip, we went to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Having studied the Holocaust for a year during my undergraduate studies, I foolishly thought I was prepared to experience all the museum had to offer; I was very wrong. Aside from the powerful and well researched exhibits in the museum, I found a simple sign that exhibited one of the most thought provoking and relevant displays in the museum. The sign, “Think About What You Saw,” reminds us that the Holocaust, and hatred in general, are still extremely relevant to the issues the world faces.

From the beginning of the Nazi state in 1933 to the collapse of Hitler’s empire in 1945, six million Jews died as a result of the hateful rhetoric of the National Socialists and their anti-Semitic conspirators. Additionally, the Nazis and their allies murdered five million peoples with disabilities, Roma, Sinti, certain Slavic populations, Blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Homosexuals, resistors and others deemed threatening or undesirable to the policies of the Third Reich.[1]

Ultranationalsim
Image courtesy of Express.co.uk

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the United Nations adopted a resolution defining, condemning, and outlining how to prosecute perpetrators of genocide.  Sadly, while the world promised to prevent another genocide from occurring, several have taken place in seventy-one years since the end of the Holocaust. Guatemala, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, East Timor, and Cambodia have all experienced genocides, and all after “Never Again.”[2] Perhaps now more than ever in the time since the end of the Second World War, the world should look back on the lessons of the Holocaust. An eerily similar political landscape is emerging in Europe. In response to large numbers of refugees fleeing from Syria and other places in the Middle East and the fear that they will bring about economic hardship, several European nations have seen a spike in right-wing and far-right wing political activity. Many of these groups push extremely nationalistic and xenophobic agendas, which could threaten the safety of migrants, immigrants, refugees, and minority groups living within Europe.

 

Demonstrators shout during "Freedom of Speech Rally Round II" outside Islamic Community Center in Phoenix
Demonstrators shout during a “Freedom of Speech Rally Round II” outside the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona May 29, 2015. More than 200 protesters, some armed, berated Islam and its Prophet Mohammed outside an Arizona mosque. Image courtesy of PBS.org

One of the most resounding lessons that USHMM, and Holocaust historians as a whole, attempt to emphasize is that while the Nazis and their collaborators were responsible for the deaths of millions, European society was largely complicit during the Holocaust. In their special exhibit entitled “Some Were Neighbors,” USHMM asks questions such as why and how this travesty happened in a supposedly civilized society. While the exhibit focuses on Nazi atrocities, it easily translates to contemporary issues of racism, homophobia, and hate. Upon exiting USHMM, I looked upon that same sign I saw before I entered, except this time I noticed in smaller print that the poster asked visitors to think about what we saw at the museum the next time we experienced hatred, the next time we saw injustice, and the next time we hear about genocide. While the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis is over, so many in the world have forgotten the evils that occurred in Germany and across Europe over seventy years ago. This is where Holocaust museums and memorials find their true relevance; to remind us that while the world vowed “Never Again”, we are never truly safe from the horrors of hate.

[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Survivors and Victims,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed March 12, 2016, https://www.ushmm.org/remember/the-holocaust-survivors-and-victims-resource-center/survivors-and-victims.

[2] Scott Lamb, “Genocide After 1945: Never Again?,” Der Spiegel, January 25, 2005, accessed March 12, 2016, http://www.spiegel.de/international/genocide-since-1945-never-again-a-338612.html.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s