Yes and No to the Holocaust Museums
Last year, in a round-table discussion on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, the subject was U.S. troops to Somalia. A black activist guest said she was in favor, emphatically—because this was a holocaust, and did not the U.S. go to war against Germany to save the Jews from the Holocaust? A question from an educated young woman. It stuck in the mind, as did the fact that none of the other guests picked up on it—Jim Lehrer, as we shall see, knows the answer, but also let it go. Sticking in the mind, her question put an extra twist on the already-too-complicated problems of history and truthfulness, the uses of memory and the mysterious ways of America, which bedeviled at least one visitor recently at the just-opened Museum of Tolerance-Beit Hashoah in Los Angeles, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation’s capital, and a traveling exhibit for children entitled “Daniel’s Story.”
The West Coast site and the one on the Mall in Washington are not exactly two of a kind. Yet both depend on the fact that although rescuing Jews had nothing to do with America’s going to war against the Third Reich, American troops did eventually stumble on Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen, and gazed at what the Germans had done. The place on the Mall is repeatedly explicit about this, beginning with a quotation from Dwight Eisenhower chiseled at the entrance. Less blunt is the L.A. facility. Yet it too has, among the objects displayed, a large American flag sewn by survivors of Mauthausen and presented to their liberators. Abstractly, necessarily, the Stars and Stripes drive out the swastika, because Nazism was or is the obverse of the world view of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation. The creators of both these new museums seem therefore to have believed, or at least wished visitors to guess, that all-out war between the U.S. and Nazi Germany was inevitable.
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