What do you learn from a Holocaust Museum?

I brought a group of college students to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills Michigan today. The experience of visiting Holocaust museums always leaves me uneasy. While walking through the exhibit and listening to the docent, I am constantly asking myself, ‘What is the intended outcome of such a visit? What impression is it meant to give the visitors?’

The tour began with a nod towards the Armenian holocaust, with a look at a special exhibit by an Armenian artist. The implied message is, ‘See, Jews are not unique. It happened before, and no one noticed.  There has always been tremendous evil in the world, and unless we recognize the signs and take action, it will happen again we will be guilty of complicity.’  At the same time, however, we wonder why, if Jews are not unique, there are no museums of the Armenian Christian Holocaust?  Why don’t they remember and shout out warnings to the world, as we do?

The tour guide made the point over and over again that Jews are not unique. ‘Who is the Jew,’ he asked. ‘Every and any one of you,’ he answered. The average citizen who knew what was happening and let it happen made the Holocaust possible. You have to believe that it can and will happen again.  You have to believe that you might be among the next set of victims, unless you understand how to watch for the signs and how to take action.

Then we approach the introduction to the permanent exhibit, pausing at a list of Jewish Nobel prize winners. A sign points out that Jew make up less the one percent of the population, but comprise 25 percent of the Nobel prize recipients. We are asked to imagine what the world destroyed when 40 percent of world Jewry was wiped out.  We are invited to imagine how much better the world would have been if the brilliant potential of European Jewry had been allowed to flower.

I wonder what my students took away from the experience.  I wonder what the two predominantly (or completely) non-Jewish grade school groups who were also visiting today took away from their experience.  Did they absorb the message that Jews are better and smarter than other people, and therefore our tragedy is monumentally worse than the Armenian Holocaust?  Or did they absorb the message that the same philosophy that gives birth to Jew hatred also spawns hatred of people of color, people with disabilities, and/or people of any minority religion?

The exhibit seems to want it both ways.  On one hand, Jews are just like anyone else, and the next victim could be you.  Other other hand, Jews are a unique treasure.

We realize that Jews have ritualized memory and the importance of remembering things, good and bad, to a depth possibly unmatched by other ethnic or religious groups.  Deep down, however, I think there is deep Jewish ambivalence about what to do with the Holocaust memory.  We have been trained by Passover and Purim and Yom Kippur to reenact our most important memories in order never to forget them.  On the other hand, we recognize that the Holocaust was an intensely painful and deeply dysfunctional period of our history, and we understand that unlike our other historical memories, this one does not have a positive lesson unless we can convince other people to join with us in taking responsibility for the evil and guarding the world so it will never happen again.

Students — Tell me:  How do you understand the experience you saw and heard today?

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5 thoughts on “What do you learn from a Holocaust Museum?

  1. Comment from Facebook: Really something to think about. I haven’t been to that museum, so I can’t say, but I didn’t feel that at the one in D.C. or Israel.

    Response: I don’t think the United States Holocaust Museum explicitly argues that the Jewish Holocaust was a greater disaster to the world than any other mass murder on the scale of millions (e.g., Armenia, Cambodia). Yad Vashem doesn’t try to show that the Holocaust was anything but the murder of Jews (i.e., my memory is that it doesn’t try to argue that we should be on the lookout for potential holocausts against other people). Only the Detroit Holocaust memorial center tries to both to claim that the Holocaust against Jews is unique, and also that a holocaust can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

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  2. I agree with Shelby. I felt that i was not informed much about the Holocaust and the history aspect of it. However, i felt that the graphic nature was necessary because to not show it would be hiding the extent to which things happened and people suffered. I believe that it was necessary and educational (although not fun at all) to see what these people suffered but it would have been better if this was paired with the same amount of historical information. That would have made the visit well rounded for me personally.

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  3. I felt like the purpose of the experience was more about shock value than education. Although I did learn a great deal about the treatment of Jews during this time, the graphic nature of the exhibits was excessive. I would have preferred to spend more time on the history that led to the events, rather than the grousome events themselves.

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  4. Your note basically describes what I felt about the whole experience. It was a great experience to witness, however I didn’t feel that I was greatly informed about the Holocaust itself. I felt like it was more of a sermon on how to act as people more than anything

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