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.
Was it? The truth is that Hitler declared war first, and if he had not, it is conceivable that the U.S. might have stayed out of the European fighting. But this tidbit of history not surprisingly comes up in neither exhibit. Some of the jobs these buildings have undertaken to do would not have been made easier by bringing in this detail, much less dwelling or speculating on it. Nor does a visitor learn much about the history of the projects themselves. But in order to appreciate these problematical shrines or tourist attractions or schoolhouses which have now been opened, some of that history will have to be told.
Unlike the building on the Mall, the one in L.A. is nothing special architecturally. Eight stories of blank stone and glass, it looks solid enough to get through an earthquake, despite the Guggenheim Museum-like corkscrew ramp at its core, adjacent to which lie the exhibition spaces, a theater, a gift shop.
This minimal self-consciousness is natural. Orthodox Jews do not especially go in for appearances, and the moving spirits behind the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance-Beit Hashoah are Orthodox Jews, albeit of the “modern” kind. The museum was itself the idea of an Orthodox rabbi, Marvin Hier, and the area in which the building stands is not only fairly Jewish but rather Orthodox—the multiplying kosher butchers and yeshivas of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood are up the street, and the Menachem Begin campus of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) is right next door.
Rabbi Hier was the founder of this West Coast branch of Yeshiva U. Soon after establishing it, he also founded, at the same address, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named after the famed Nazihunter, with its own cramped Holocaust museum in a back room. This was a low-tech affair fashioned by and for Jews and holding nothing against the Gentiles back—an outsized portrait of Pius XII was given a prominent place among pictures of those who “didn’t care.” The message was that Jews have enemies, murderous enemies, and should look out.
When Rabbi Hier first announced his plan for a much grander museum, some assumed it would merely enlarge on this theme. That was one reason why his announcement was not greeted with universal joy. Freshly arrived in the city, he had already been perceived as stepping on toes and over turf demarcations on his way to making the Wiesenthal Center perhaps the biggest and richest Jewish self-defense organization in the world.
One of the rabbi’s tactics had been to enlist the friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, whom he made in the entertainment business. Concern was therefore expressed that his new Beit Hashoah—in Hebrew, the House of the Holocaust—would be too show-biz, and at the same time alarmist, parochial, illiberal, chintzy, hawkish, pro-Likud. To the plans for Beit Hashoah was soon added the concept of a Museum of Tolerance, but this did not stop a lawsuit being filed by the local chapter of the ACLU in 1985, charging that a matching grant of $5 million from the state of California was illegal because Hier was a clergyman and both the fantastically successful Wiesenthal Center and this museum project were really front operations of YULA.
An out-of-court deal took care of the suit before it ripened into a scandal. Fund-raising for the big new project, competing with fund-raising for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., now described it in terms more acceptable to the liberal and secular imagination. Still, many of those who shuddered at Hier’s methods and distrusted his motives and politics watched uneasily as the new building on West Pico Boulevard went up. They braced themselves for its gala opening earlier this year in the presence of the eighty-four-year-old Wiesenthal, the two Jewish female U.S. Senators from California, and Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger, son of an Austrian Nazi.
“The trick, if you want to teach people,” Schwarzenegger commented at the opening, “is you have to first grab their attention.” Undeniably, the Museum of Tolerance, a.k.a. the Tolerancenter, which a visitor enters first, does this. “Faggot!” an amplified voice from somewhere whispers at him. “Redneck bastard!”
The message, the lesson, of this first section is that intolerance in America remains endemic and vivid, and “the potential for violence is within all of us.” No one is let off the liberal hook. “Some of them are my patients,” complains a white doctor, probably a Jew, on one of the dozens of TV monitors arrayed in the Tolerancenter. “I mean, right next door. Can you imagine?” says a black in suit and tie. Lacking the high gloss such things may possess, this rather noisy multimedia show reminds one of the up-to-date gadgetry deployed by proselytizing Orthodox Jews. Yet that does not seem to make the first leg of the exhibition any less irresistible to the museum’s nonsectarian target audience.
A young, mass audience. Its consciousness, the museum assumes, was seared if not raised by the April 1992 riots in the aftermath of the verdict in the first Rodney King beating trial, an event which the politically correct in Los Angeles always refer to as “the rebellion.” These riots, therefore, have been made to figure large. At the push of a button, a visitor gets the viewpoint of a Korean grocer, an Orange County housewife, a cop, a South-Central gang member who blames TV for showing where the looting was good. “Take Responsibility!” the visitor is urged. “Think for Yourself!” The undebatable message, however, is that the King beating, the verdict in the trial, and the riots that followed were all equally a result of intolerance, an intolerance spread evenly across the ethnic rainbow, a devil of intolerance which has been at odds with America’s better nature ever since Plymouth Rock.
No, even before. “In 1492, my people welcomed Columbus—a big mistake,” remarks a cutout of a Native American. Then, in June 1637, 500 Pequots were massacred. The Pilgrims responsible are classified among the great villains of intolerance, along with Saddam Hussein, Khomeini, the Khmer Rouge, Hitler, Lenin. As against them, there are heroes, American and foreign, to learn about and emulate: Gandhi, Churchill, FDR, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. The visitor gazes at the classic images of the dogs being sicked on the marchers at Selma and of blacks standing with Unitarians and Jews, arms linked, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
In other words, there is nothing here to rile the ACLU. Nor the Armenians and Cambodians, whose treatment at the hands of the Turks and the Khmer Rouge is covered, briefly, in a display on pre-and post-Holocaust genocides. The Holocaust itself, so the lesson is taught in L.A., represents the ultimate act of intolerance to which any form of intolerance can lead. This, indeed, is the bottom line, and it brings us to part two, Beit Hashoah.
Beit Hashoah seeks to teach visitors about the Holocaust by making “witnesses” of them. To this end, each receives a “passport” in the name of a murdered, or occasionally a rescued, Jewish child, and is moved along, processed as it were, from diorama to mock-up by pre-timed, disembodied narrators. “It started with words,” we are told, and here is a Weimar bookstore retailing Mein Kampf. A Berlin café in 1932 features George Segal-esque mannequins discussing the pros and cons of “this Hitler fellow.” Then a book-burning, a rally at which orgasmic women throw the fascist salute, and the strains of the theme from The Threepenny Opera.
The sound level continues quite high. How could it happen? Well, a lost war, terrible inflation, unemployment. But why blame the Jews? “By blaming them, Hitler was reviving a centuries-old prejudice.” And the churches? Did they not know? Of course they did, yet it was the Vatican’s emissary who presented his credentials to the Nazis ahead of the rest of the diplomatic corps. In a photo of this ceremony, the origins of Beit Hashoah in the little museum next door—the one organized around the theme that Jews are beset by murderous enemies and must beware—show through.
As they do in some of the other facts highlighted. “Virtually no one,” we learn, “wanted to accept an influx of Jewish refugees—including the United States.” The Jewish homeland in Palestine, meanwhile, was all but closed to Jews. Nothing if not literal, Beit Hashoah includes a holographic view of the Wannsee Conference in 1942, at which the Final Solution was formalized. “Come sit in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto,” the visitor-witness is told. Papier-mâché ruins. “And here are the gates of Auschwitz.” The gate through which one walks is strung with real barbed wire. And here are the photos, which, even if one has seen them a million times, make the skin crawl. Electronically, the witnessing visitor’s “passport” is updated. Almost always, he learns, a camp such as this was the child’s last stop.
It is not, however, the visitor’s last stop. “Who was responsible?” one of the final exhibits asks. “Racist bigots, blind followers, world leaders who did nothing, ordinary people who remained silent.” By contrast, the names of more than 8,000 Righteous of the Nations—non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews—scroll continuously on a TV screen. “Could it happen again?” For sure: here are fresh news clips from Somalia, Bosnia, the current Germany of the skinheads.
This is a climax of sorts, and a return to the premises of the Tolerancenter. For those seeking more information, however, there are computer work stations accessing whole libraries of data, and for those looking for authentic objects, a room displaying canisters of Zyklon-B gas, or the Mauthausen flag. A Tower of Witness, embedded with 2,480 photos of Jews going about their lives in Europe before 1939, rises 96 feet high. As for the gift shop, it offers mezuzot, earrings, greeting cards, a wide selection of videos and books, from the Hollywood version of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice starring Meryl Streep to the works of Primo Levi, and Museum of Tolerance sweatshirts.
“Grotesque” was the New Republic‘s one-word verdict on how Rabbi Hier’s brainchild has turned out. Yes, but in whose eyes? Not in Simon Wiesenthal’s. Declared the survivor after his black-tie visit in the company of Schwarzenegger: “When you walk out of here, you are absolutely another person because you are thinking, ‘What can be done that all this horror will not repeat?’ ” Nor in Schwarzenegger’s warm gray-green eyes. To quote him again: “The trick, if you want to teach people, is you have to first grab their attention, then teach them, then make sure it lasts. And this museum does all three of those things.” It does them, presumably, not for an audience of the literate and naturally sensitive, but for the masses who gravitate to Arnold’s movies and might be nudged in the right direction by entertainment values, white lies, and those nauseating, infuriating photos.
And these masses are coming. Grotesque or not, the Museum of Tolerance-Beit Hashoah is a hit. An average of 5,000 salt-of-the-earth visitors weekly have been paying $7.50 each to get in, of whom not even half seem to be in any way Jewish. Tourists and local clubs and schools are doing the tour. So are ordinary couples and individuals. Possibly a quarter of a million souls will view the exhibits before the year is through—a remarkable number, considering that in deference to its origins the place is closed on Saturday, the best museum day of the week.
It has also become a venue for a more stylish crowd. On an evening in May, for example, more than 500 persons paid $20 each to pack the theater for a film—on, of course, Bosnia. A good-looking, hip, ultra-liberal, bareheaded crowd, hailing not from Pico-Robertson but rather from Beverly Hills and Malibu, unanimous in its sentiments, not overly knowledgeable about Balkan history, largely though by no means exclusively of Jewish extraction.
The documentary for which this not-uninfluential crowd had set aside an evening was made and presented by Arthur Kent, an ex-NBC reporter. “Powerful” is the favored adjective. And the movie did powerfully catch the Serbian Orthodox gunmen and gunwomen terrorizing the outgunned Bosnian Muslims in the pretty, heavily wooded Balkan hills. If the crowd expected to be shocked, it was not disappointed. Nor was anyone forgetting under whose auspices the evening was taking place. Said Kent when the lights went up: “What you have seen is an insult to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust.” The unanimous sentiment in the room was for arming the Muslims, if not for intervening with American troops on their behalf. Rabbi Hier stood by listening.
He was also seen at the kosher buffet afterward, where a not-so-young, unmarried, self-confessed Jewish woman, upon being shown a copy of the medieval illuminated Sarajevo Haggadah by one of the Bosnians who had come to gather more Jewish support for his people, said that it was very nice and asked, “What’s a haggadah?” The Muslim tried to enlighten her.
A few weeks earlier, on the other side of the continent, across the street from the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial, and the soggy cherry blossoms, the most famous survivor of Auschwitz wondered aloud why the order which could have been given to the American bombers to hit the gas chambers there was never given. Next, as millions watched on TV, Elie Wiesel turned and directly addressed Bill Clinton, the man the liberal audience in Los Angeles had helped to put in the White House. “I have been in the former Yugoslavia, Mr. President! I cannot sleep since what I have seen! As a Jew, I am saying that! We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country!”
On the podium, the graying baby-boomer President, with his wife and daughter, braving gusts of stinging cold April rain, seemed to be listening closely and appeared to be moved. Not so Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Secretary of State Warren Christopher. They were down in the audience with Lech Walesa of Poland and Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and the Vice Chancellor of Germany, and they had on their poker faces.
Into the neoclassical façade of the building they were all helping to dedicate, the following words of Ike’s are carved:
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 firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.
With the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of State were other cabinet officers, much of Congress, a District of Columbia junior-high-school choir, heavily black, which had rendered “The Star Spangled Banner,” and a few hundred aging and elderly survivors, naturalized Americans like Wiesel, tough numbers risking pneumonia. They all heard many distinguished speakers leading up to the President.
Krister Stendhal, a Protestant cleric at Harvard, said in his invocation, “I pray that we in the churches will finally be rudely awakened to our complicity. . . . Le’olam lo od—Never again.” Master of ceremonies Ted Koppel, son of German-Jewish refugees, laid it down that “Never again means never again in Jerusalem, Cambodia, Bosnia.” Harvey Meyerhoff, the Republican builder and philanthropist appointed by Ronald Reagan to take the construction of this U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in hand, and let go by Clinton just days before, averred that “remembrance and education” will be the twin missions of this “American museum for the American people.” Only the then-President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, a World War II vet suffering from the weather, left Bosnia unmentioned and said that “the United States of America led the free world in the struggle against Nazism . . . its major role in bringing this museum about is a natural corollary to its role in the world today.”
It had been a long road to this stormy day. Early in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Stuart Eizenstat and several other Jewish aides had suggested the building of a Holocaust memorial on federal land, but the idea went nowhere until 1978, when there was trouble over the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Carter explained his green light for the project thus:
Although the Holocaust took place in Europe, the event is of fundamental significance to Americans for three reasons. First, it was American troops who liberated many of the death camps, and who helped to expose the horrible truth of what had been done there. Also, the United States became a homeland for many of those who were able to survive. Secondly, however, we must share the responsibility for not being willing to acknowledge 40 years ago that this horrible event was occurring. Finally, because we are humane people, concerned with the human rights of all peoples, we feel compelled to study the systematic destruction of the Jews so that we may seek to learn how to prevent such enormities from occurring in the future.
Carter appointed a committee, the Holocaust Council, to tell him exactly what should be done. The members took his reasoning seriously, indeed extrapolated from it. Headed by Wiesel and composed mainly of Jews, it recommended not only a “living monument” on the Mall, but a built-in “committee of conscience” to raise the alarm whenever human rights were trampled anywhere in the world.
Carter approved the first recommendation. The second he of course did not—monitoring human rights abroad is the State Department’s job. So the U.S., by unanimous act of Congress, donated a parcel on the Mall, leaving it to the Holocaust Council to raise the money for the building and its contents.
West Pico Boulevard is one thing, the Mall quite another. There were some very wise heads who thought the entire congressionally-approved idea a poor one. For example, Henry Kissinger: “Building a memorial on national ground is likely to reignite anti-Semitism . . . [by raising] . . . too high a profile.” Between the lines of Kissinger’s objection stared the hurt faces of the Irish, Ukrainians, Cambodians, Armenians, blacks, Native Americans. Why a national memorial to the agony of just one very small and rapidly shrinking tile in the American mosaic?
The mostly tacit anxieties of the former refugee Kissinger were foreign, however, to some of his co-religionists. “Our decision to build such a museum,” stated Ambassador Max Kampelman, a member of the Council, “says something about our commitment to human rights and to the kind of nation we want to be. . . . [It will] demonstrate the tolerance of [American] culture.” But how would the Holocaust be presented to a tolerant America? As an event in Jewish history, something done by some Gentiles to virtually every Jew they could get hold of while other Gentiles looked away? Or, in the American tradition, as a nonsectarian experience packing universal meaning? Would the Holocaust be kidnapped? Talk of a pavilion to honor the gay victims of the Nazis (in the event, no such pavilion was built) fed suspicions that it might be.
By 1986, with little money raised and the thrust of the museum unsettled, Wiesel had quit, his place taken by Meyerhoff. The discussion and fighting over design and theme continued to the end among the sponsors, experts, and curators. But now things began to move and the funds to arrive in a torrent of big and small donations. One of Ronald Reagan’s last acts in office was to unveil the cornerstone, and by the time the project was finished, Meyerhoff and his colleagues had raised $168 million, considerably more than originally aimed for.
And so, three Presidents later, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was ready. As the gale whipped his mop of graying hair back and forth, Clinton told his countrymen that he hoped “every visitor to Washington comes here.” He continued: “If this museum can mobilize morality, those who died will not have done so in vain . . . we must remain the adversaries of evil . . . in Bosnia, in Iran, in South Africa.” Then he helped the sacked Meyerhoff and the indispensable Wiesel light an eternal flame, and the doors to a building unlike any other in the neighborhood were thrown open.
Unless they stop to read the passage by Eisenhower, the members of a tourist family who have just enjoyed the Omnifax films at the National Air and Space Museum nearby may have no idea what awaits them here. The façade of this building designed by the architect James Freed—himself a former Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany—says nothing else, and the structures he has placed on the roof, copies of the watchtowers of a prison, are barely visible from the street.
Unlike in Los Angeles, of course, Mom and Dad and the kids will need to pay nothing to enter, and will be able to do so any day of the week. Upon entering, however, all will be issued ID cards, not unlike the “passport” at Beit Hashoah. Each updatable card, as in L.A., tells the story of a victim or survivor the same age in 1939 as the visitor is now, and the same sex. As they receive their ID’s, visitors are meant to be thinking about the words inscribed at the entrance, referring to a sub-camp of Buchenwald visited by Ike soon after his troops reached it in 1945.
Families with small children can go straight to “Daniel’s Story” on the ground floor. An ugly industrial elevator lifts other visitors from a corner of the Hall of Witness, a sort of atrium, to the top floor, where the adult permanent exhibit begins. Here the first thing heard and seen on TV monitors are GI’s in War Department footage by the director George Stevens, horrified by what they have just come upon and what the visitor-tourist himself observes next—the walking skeletons, the piles of naked corpses.
“How did it happen?” This rather ambiguously-phrased question is supposed to have been asked by liberators and survivors alike, and is the main one the museum proposes to answer. Its strategy in doing so is slightly dissimilar from that in Los Angeles. If Beit Hashoah is lowbrow, the exhibiton the Mall and the building housing it are self-consciously highbrow. If Beit Hashoah is loud and goes in for puppets and mock-ups, here the noise level is much lower and you find almost only genuine artifacts. If the history presented in Beit Hashoah is impressionistic, here it is scrupulous, at least so far as it goes, a faithful boiling-down into the audiovisual mode of the books of Raul Hilberg, Walter Laqueur, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, David Wyman, Martin Gilbert, Léon Poliakov, and other historians.
Will a visitor get something more, or something different, from this museum? Factors like intelligence, susceptibility, curiosity, attention span, and pure stomach will determine that.
It takes a visitor with lots of time and curiosity, for instance, to stop and view all 26 minutes of a specially-produced film on the history of anti-Semitism. This starts by recalling that Jesus was a rabbi and does not end before quoting Hitler: “The difference between the Church and me is that I am finishing the job.” In between, the deicide story paves the way for colorful medieval illustrations of Jews with horns and Luther’s anti-Semitic ravings. For anyone with patience, the connection will be drawn between the Gospels and the Final Solution. “Many groups were persecuted by the Nazis,” the film concludes. “Only against the Jews was the whole machinery of state mobilized.”
Or again, Jim Lehrer narrates a film condensing David Wyman’s Paper Walls and The Abandonment of the Jews. From it, a visitor with another half-hour to spare will learn that the same FDR who itched to get his mighty country into the war against Hitler saw no good reason to interfere with Hitler’s war against the Jews, even when American bombers were dealing with oil refineries across the road from Auschwitz. “Most Americans accepted the view that nothing could be done until victory,” Lehrer drawls. Freed, the building’s architect, and his parents found refuge in America before 1939, but later the State Department sat on its visas.
Our tourist family, if it has not bailed out through one of the special exits provided for when things become too much, now crosses a bridge across the atrium-like Hall of Witness. This is Freed’s showpiece, meant to establish the mood, a nightmarish space contained in raw brick and nonfunctional girders, all its perspectives wrong, as in the set of an expressionist Weimar movie like Metropolis. It is a style that was proscribed, and already clichéd, when Freed left Germany as a child at the same time as Kissinger. Few tourists will catch the borrowing, but their ignorance may actually enhance the intended effect as they go on to the most painful part of the museum.
Again, as in L.A., the stress is on objects, as if otherwise the Final Solution would be incredible. A 40-foot casting of the Warsaw Ghetto wall. A freight car brought over from Poland. A toy wooden butterfly carved and painted at There-sienstadt. A casting of the gate to Auschwitz. Heaps of toothbrushes, combs, actual hair. A tower of about 1,500 portraits of the inhabitants of Ejszyszki, a shtetl, before the war. This museum, along with its objects, goes to more documentary trouble, and is also more horrific in what it makes available in the way of pictures, than is Beit Hashoah. German films of shootings, hangings, suicides, and “medical experiments” may be viewed by anyone caring to look over a five-foot-high barrier.
As in L.A., too, the visitor gets exhibits on resistance, rescue, “expressions of ordinary decency.” The French Protestant village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon mobilizes to save around 5,000 Jews. Anton Schmid, an Austrian sergeant in the Wehrmacht, is executed for sheltering the enemy. FDR finally okays the War Refugee Board, and, with money raised by American Jews and funneled through it, Raul Wallenberg rescues maybe 200,000 people. But despite this, and despite exhibits on Israel and the survivors who made it to the U.S., the mood is kept grim, the updated ID generally informing its bearer that his double failed to survive.
How, then, did “it” happen? The question is not so much answered as it is surrounded by evidence: the familiar pictures and sounds of Weimar collapsing, “the power of propaganda,” the book-burnings, the Nuremberg laws, the Evian Conference, the odyssey of the St. Louis from Hamburg to Miami and back, an original model of an index-card machine sorting the particulars of every mischling, every poor child of intermarriage in the Reich, all the way through to the ghastly end, including “the ultimate crime,” the murder of the children. How did it happen? It happened thus, and thus, and thus.
Visitors with exceptional stamina, having done the tour, can go on to interactive terminals programmed to answer almost any question of mere fact. Or they can patronize a gift shop and snack bar. Those who have had enough can go straight out past the entrance to “Daniel’s Story,” past the security guards, back into the Mall and the sunlight.
This end of the Mall breathes peace, rationality, optimism. All its democratic perspectives and vistas are just right. The only non-optimistic site hereabouts, one which preceded Freed’s building and is popular with tourists, pilgrims, and vets who leave flowers, buy memorabilia, pray, and weep, is the memorial wall to the American dead in Vietnam next to the Lincoln Memorial. But even the wall is peaceful.
A visitor who has just spent the better part of a day in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum may be temporarily disoriented by the peacefulness and beauty of the immediate surroundings, by the picnicking families, by the hot-dog vendors. Did Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, all of whose monuments and memorials are visible as one strolls about, did they ever imagine David Duke and Louis Farrakhan, let alone Joseph Goebbels? An idle question. Better questions are, first, whether this museum and the L.A. museum have done what they were supposed to do, and, secondly and inevitably, whether they will be good for the Jews.
For all the differences between them, both museums are supposed to relate the story of the Holocaust, memorialize the people exterminated by the Germans and their helpers, and—by telling that story to the present American generation and generations to come—decrease the chance that any humans anywhere will be treated or be allowed to treat other humans like vermin again.
The question of how well they memorialize the dead is basically an aesthetic one, and can therefore be left to the taste of the individual. As for relating the story, the highbrow national museum has to be gauged more demandingly than that of Rabbi Hier. The New Republic termed it a “pedagogical masterpiece.” Indeed, so far as it goes, it never blinks, and it hangs together unusually for what it is, the work of a committee melding the not always congruent researches of various historians. For example, it manages to avoid judging the Judenräte, the German-appointed Jewish ghetto councils, while taking a middle road between the assault on them by Hannah Arendt and their defense by Isaiah Trunk. Still, as it stands, the national museum does not get more than a B+ in history, for it does leave several crucial things out.
The exhibits at both museums are not cast in stone and probably will be altered over the years. Yeshayahu Weinberg, an Israeli who is one of the directors of the national museum, says it “restricts itself meticulously to . . . presenting the well-established actual course of events.” Presumably this will continue to be its line. Which should not mean that someday, an exhibit could not be added in both L.A. and Washington on the Soviet innovations foreshadowing the Holocaust.
This is delicate, indeed treacherous, ground—the revisionist historians in Germany, led by Ernst Nolte, have been trying to domesticate the Holocaust by setting it in the period and the European context of the gulag and Stalin’s Great Famine. Would the Germans have done what they did if they had not known what the Soviets had done before them, and gotten away with? Perhaps—after all, in Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler was already speaking of the need to “wipe out” the Jews. Yet there is something here to consider for anyone who truly seeks an answer to how it happened—meaning, beyond an evidentiary record of their techniques and other details, how the Germans could have believed themselves released from the fear of God and the opinion of mankind, and how the world could either have failed to credit what they proceeded to do while they were doing it, or failed to impede it while knowing full well that it was being done.
Of course, it is necessary to understand that Auschwitz went the gulag one better, mobilizing the genius of a nation to exterminate another. Even Nolte has had to admit that “the Final Solution is singular in a certain, not merely trivial sense.” Yet, he immediately adds, and one has to agree with him, “that does not mean it cannot be compared.”
That hard and necessary comparison, showing that the Holocaust did not really come out of the blue, need not be mischievous or confusing. Indeed, in a 1988 essay, Michael Berenbaum, another director of the national museum, saw this, writing, “Comparisons with other instances of subjugation or mass murder . . . do not innately obscure the uniqueness of the Holocaust; they clarify it.” But evidently, in the push and tug of deciding how to tell it, certain illuminating facets of the larger story were ruled out. A national museum, even in the U.S., operates under constraints. The truth may freely be told about FDR and Foggy Bottom, but not about the Turks in 1916 or the Vatican in 1933-45—which is probably why, unlike in L.A., the visitor in Washington is presented nothing about the Armenians or Pius XII.
Perhaps in time a diplomatic way can be found to tell more of the educational truth, for its own sake if not for the sake of preventing a recurrence.
Such prevention is a job undertaken by both institutions. The place on the Mall is not so explicit about the task as the one in L.A., yet the words of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—not very different in the end from those of Simon Wiesenthal and Arnold Schwarzenegger—have been echoed in comments made by the individuals with the greatest influence on how the national museum has turned out. Berenbaum puts it like this: “The mission of the institution is to memorialize the past by educating a new generation partly in the hope of transforming the future by sensitizing those who will shape it.”
So far, that hope must be judged forlorn. As if scripted by a cruel, didactic writer, the opening of both museums coincided with the escalation of the televised doings in Bosnia, and none of the false analogies drawn and pleas sounded in connection with the openings has been able to make a difference, not in restraining the people on the spot and not in revolutionizing the idea of the national interest as it is understood at the other, the business, end of the Mall. “When you’re sitting there at the dedication of the Holocaust museum,” Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.) said, “and Elie Wiesel correctly points out that this tragedy [in Bosnia] is ensuing and we’re doing nothing, that brings enormous pressure to bear.” Enormous, but not irresistible. As McCain, who spent years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, added sensibly enough, “The question is what is viable.”
In other words, it is still a jungle out beyond the twelve-mile limit, and woe to anyone living there who has only moral suasion to exercise in his own behalf.
Wiesel’s outcry to the President was ignored by Clinton as Ronald Reagan ignored Wiesel’s plea not to go to the German cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. But the urge to play the committee of conscience runs deep. A few months before the museum’s opening, for example, but in its name, Harvey Meyerhoff protested to the German government over the decision to send Gypsy illegals back to Romania.
Touching a poisoned issue closer to home, the national museum also co-sponsored the first showing of a documentary movie celebrating the liberation of several Nazi concentration camps by all-black units of the U.S. Army. “In the wake of the controversial acquittal of an Afro-American youth accused of murdering a hasidic student last year in Crown Heights,” the museum newsletter reported, “the film’s premiere . . . offered a rare opportunity for reconciliation and communication between two of New York City’s most prominent ethnic groups.” Soon after this well-intentioned evening, held in the presence of Mayor David Dinkins, who gave a speech, it emerged that although the film-maker had consulted the museum’s research materials, the camps in question were not liberated by black units at all.
But if the museums need to steer clear of politics, both domestic and foreign, might it nevertheless be within their power to help delay the return of domestic anti-Semitism? There can be no doubt that a particular kind of historical ignorance is a potential menace to Jewish security. In a survey published by the American Jewish Committee earlier this year, fully 28 percent of a national cross-section did not know what the Holocaust refers to. This level of ignorance may not be surprising in a country where most high-school graduates do not know the difference between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Nevertheless, it gives one pause. More remarkable still is a figure of around 20 percent of respondents across the board—whites and blacks, students and adults, rich and poor, men and women, educated and dropouts—who do know what the Holocaust refers to but believe it possible that it never happened.
In other words, the so-called “historians” spreading the news on campus and off that the Holocaust is a Zionist myth seem to be making headway. A generation whose conventional wisdom it is that the CIA killed John Kennedy may be ready to give a hearing to the idea that Auschwitz was not such a bad place as it has been made out to be. Elements of the deconstructionist and/or progressive establishment join hands on this with the neo-Nazi Right, such a leftist idol as Noam Chomsky having contributed a Voltaire-like introduction to one of the basic Holocaust-denying texts. Some of the professional deniers are quite smooth. All have the same agenda. Once the Holocaust is widely in doubt, unvarnished anti-Semitism will become a great deal less taboo for everybody.
Most of the deniers so far have been white. But the climate in which denial looks plausible, just another idea in the bazaar of ideas, is promoted by black intellectuals whose color already lets them flout the taboo without undue penalty. A federal jury has effectively decided that one such professor has a First Amendment right to keep his job as a department head at the City College of New York while making speeches about a Jewish conspiracy to enslave and demean his people. In these ways, and dispensing with the “anti-Zionist” mask, anti-Semitism is reintroduced into polite society and the work of the deniers made a little easier.
The mouths of such people will not be stopped by the new museums. But if Schwarzenegger’s endorsement and Clinton’s recommendation count for anything, several million Americans will visit these places before the decade, the century, and the millennium are out. What they pick up and retain, no matter how little, might render the deniers’ work harder. And though it would be naive to trust in the prophylactic magic of a single educational outing, it is at least conceivable that a few black youngsters bound for college and the middle class might emerge less susceptible to the anti-Semites, especially if it were made clear, as it is not made clear now, that their grandfathers did not go to war in a Jim Crow army to save the Jews.
And what of Jewish youngsters?
Glorious is the word for San Diego’s Balboa Park with its bougainvillea, its fountains, its cultural landmarks in the Spanish-mission style, and its comparatively few homeless, both white and black, pushing shopping carts. It is in one of the city museums here that “Daniel’s Story” has been on view this summer. A traveling version of this exhibit for children which is permanent in Washington, it has been to New Orleans and Indianapolis, and will be moving on to Seattle.
One of the first groups of children to see it in San Diego was from Beth Israel, a local Reform day school. American Jews do not have many children these days. Of the few they have, few go to Jewish day schools. Those from Beth Israel all presumably know what a haggadah is, and are, through no fault of their own, nice, sweet kids, as innocent as vanilla, indistinguishable from non-Jewish California Anglo grade-schoolers of upper-middle-class provenance. Nor are all these little blonds and blondes the offspring of intermarriage.
The Beth Israel teachers, all women, plus the moms nervously accompanying the group, did not have to call it to order before the tour started—the children were already hushed. “We want you to see what happened in Germany in the 1930′s and relate it to some of what is happening in this country today,” said the guide. What happened is told in the story of Daniel, a composite German Jewish boy approximately the age of Kissinger, Freed, or Mike Nichols at the time.
“My mother was really beautiful, and she made the best chocolate cake in the world!” says Daniel’s recorded, unaccented voice. His sister Erika was also beautiful. “The Nazis hated lots of people. But they hated Jews most of all. Why? Why?” As in Beit Hashoah, the narrative voice moves visitors along from mock-up to photomontage to mock-up. The ambient noise is kept lower than in L.A., lower even than on the Mall—only a soft Yiddish dirge and a sobbing cello give counterpoint to the final part of Daniel’s tale—and as a brochure for parents says, “There are no photos of corpses, ovens, or use of overtly descriptive texts.”
The Beth Israel kids appeared sufficiently disturbed nevertheless. “We will now see the trains which took Jews to Auschwitz,” says Daniel’s always-innocent voice. The guide, a grandmotherly American Jewish lady, wanted to get over the word “gassed” quickly, but instead stumbled on it. “We learned that Mom and Erika were killed the day we arrived,” Daniel recounts to his New World age-mates. He and his father were taken from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, then liberated by the Americans. What happened to them after that is not gone into.
The message, in Daniel’s words, is that “over one million children were killed by the Nazis. . . . We must remember so that people will never hurt children like this again.” The guide: “Thank you for being so good. I hope you learned a lot about the Holocaust and that you make sure it never happens again to Jews or anyone else.”
This, however, is not the end. A cheerier, higher-decibel “debriefing room” gives the children “a chance,” according to the parents’ brochure, “to explore their feelings.” It reminded a visitor of Rabbi Hier’s Tolerancenter. Again, the pantheon of liberal heroes and heroines—the late Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Anne Frank. Again, TV monitors flashing the news of contemporary trouble, the fruit of intolerance—Bosnia, the L.A. riots.
Some of the Beth Israel children perked up at the sight of the interactive gadgets, and surfed from one to the next. Others remained stunned, unable to play or talk, as if grasping that what they had just seen was not of a piece with the make-believe violence they are used to on television. Some wrote down their reactions, as they were encouraged to do, and pinned them up on a board beside those of earlier visitors. For example, a certain Rachel, not getting it, had written, “Jews should kill Nazis.”
And half-a-dozen gathered around David Faber. He waited for them at his own homemade display, a trim man in short sleeves, the numerals on his forearm noticeable to an adult and perhaps to a child. “Katowice: My Hometown” was the hand-lettered caption of one badly faded photo. “I don’t want you children to get nightmares,” Faber said. “But you’re here and you might as well learn.” And he proceeded to tell, among other things, of how he saw his brother tortured to death by the Gestapo. A worried teacher hinted that he should wrap it up. Which, his voice breaking, he did, saying to his listeners, “This is the best country in the world to live in. You should only appreciate it. And remember, don’t let it happen again. Love everybody.”
Such is the message from beginning to end, and just to make sure it is absorbed, every child gets a card in plastic to wear around his neck the rest of the day, saying, “daniel’s story reminds me to treat all human beings with respect and kindness and to teach others to do the same.”
As her nine-year-old got his card, one of the moms, the color back in her face, pronounced herself well satisfied with the exhibit. Was the subject matter, she was asked, new to him? Yes. And in fact, is not anti-Semitism, first-hand anti-Semitism, quite unknown to kids like these? Indeed it is, she admitted, but then remembered that her fourteen-year-old, enrolled in public school, had recently been the target of words from a skinhead in the cafeteria. And? And her son’s friend, the child of Israeli émigrés, had socked the offender. The incident had left a bad taste with her older boy, who had begged off coming today.
Meanwhile, the next batch of children entering the show, Hispanics and Asians from a public school, wanted their plastic tolerance cards too, but were informed they could have them only at the end.
More even than on leaving the museums in L.A. and Washington, an adult Jew exits “Daniel’s Story” in turmoil, brooding on the psychohistory of American Jewry.
That history may never be written. If it ever is, however, it might dredge the collective subconscious for an explanation of why, in an era when American Jews were vanishing into the melting pot as never before, so many leveraged such clout and raised such impressive monies to put up the L.A. museum and especially the one on the Mall with its peripatetic children’s exhibit.
Among the barely conscious motives discoverable may be guilt and anxiety: long-lasting, second-hand guilt over a previous generation’s failure to do everything possible for its brethren while the extermination which later become known as the Holocaust was known to be going on. Such guilt half a century later may well be misplaced, quite unreasonable. Yet when has reason or time ever stopped guilt from eating away, demanding gestures of expiation not merely from those who might have failed, but from their children and grandchildren?
Our psychohistorian will probably conclude that one of the reasons why, immediately after the extermination, almost all American Jews shelved their doubts about a Jewish state also stemmed from the expiative imperative. “The one suitable monument to the memory of European Jewry,” declared an editorial in the Israeli paper Davar in 1951, “is the state of Israel.” There were probably few American Jews, in or out of the suddenly vestigial Zionist movement in this country, who for the next two or three decades quarreled with that sentiment in their innermost hearts. And so, when the Israelis were perceived to have their backs to the wall, in 1967 and 1973, a lot of American Jews were quite ready to do for them what they had not been ready, or had been unable, to do a generation before for the millions of people to whose memory Israel was the living, best, and only true monument.
Times change, the psyche turns. If Israel’s back were again to the wall, most American Jews would surely rally to it, no matter whether Labor or Likud was in charge. But in the meantime, for a large and influential minority, Israel has become something of an embarrassment, a mundane drag, or a challenge to be overcome. The idea of Zion’s centrality or preeminence in any or all things is questioned, especially as the news from Israel has become chronically disagreeable, particularly but not exclusively for liberals. There is a new breed of American Diaspora-affirmers, who say that Zion is not or should not be the only center of the Jewish universe. Much of what Israel can do, they contend, the red-hot heart of the Diaspora can do as well, if not better.
This now includes memorializing the six million and teaching the alleged lessons of the Holocaust. No longer will Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the official Israeli museum of the Shoah, have a monopoly. The inauguration of the building on the Mall thus amounts to more than an offering to those murdered and to the diminishing band of survivors who have made the U.S. their precious home. It is also a declaration of independence.
A tacit declaration, but one not absent from the thoughts of some of those involved in making the place a reality. For Berenbaum, the “nativization” of the Holocaust evinced by a national museum shows that American Jews, unlike in the past, are today “proud and self-affirming.”
How, exactly, do they affirm themselves? The planning and construction of the museum, Berenbaum writes, accompanied “the events of the 1980′s [which] will slowly bring to an end the Israeli-centered period for American Jews.” Those events, “for my generation,” were “the debacle in Lebanon, followed by the Pollard affair and the Palestinian uprisings.” His generation’s “tale,” Berenbaum therefore concludes, “is more anguished, less innocent” than that of his parents’ generation, “for now the Jewish people are divided, uncertain about the direction of their future.”
That is to say, roughly since Menachem Begin rose to its premiership, Israel has failed Berenbaum’s generation of American Jews as moral exemplar. According to his reading of Begin’s world view, a view which continues to run strong in Israel whether the Right is in or out, “Jews are a people that dwells alone. . . . Jews must determine their own morality.” This view is also supposed to lurk just below the surface at Yad Vashem, an institution which Berenbaum otherwise holds in great respect. It is not his world view, however, nor the American one. “If Israelis turn to the Holocaust as proof that the whole world is against them, American Jews reinforce their commitment to pluralism by recalling the atrocities that sprang from intolerance.”
Thus, by its location, by its grim magnificence, by the fact that American Jews conceived, built, and run it, the place on the Mall implies not only that these Jews have come of age, but that they are capable of instructing others in morality—yes, of providing a light unto the nation. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a mover behind the Washington project, says frankly: “Jews have always helped transform the world by telling their historical experience. Now we’re doing that with the Holocaust.”
“Proud and self-affirming,” Berenbaum calls American Jews. Some undeniably are; yet for a truthful generalization, this will not do. The Jews of America in this fin de siècle—many, many individuals famous and obscure, and most of the communities to which for the most part they only tenuously belong—are not in good health. Most local federations, most day schools like Beth Israel, most temples and synagogues, are having a rough time of it. Not due to intolerance, of course, but rather to the steady warmth and general openness of this society.
The gut anxiety of, say, an American Jewish veteran of World War II and his wife has little to do with David Duke or Louis Farrakhan, and is summed up in two questions: “Will we ever have grandchildren? Will they be Jewish?” The outstanding symptom, and one which Gentile friends have been aware of for some years, is that most Jewish women and men do not trouble to go together. Not to mention the fact that even when they do, they excel, in Milton Himmelfarb’s immortal phrase of 30 years ago, as contraceptive virtuosos. The upshot is that, as in Berlin and Vienna when Hitler was still working the beer halls, the natural Jewish death rate in America today runs ahead of the Jewish birthrate.
The late Rabbi Meir Kahane used to call this a self-inflicted demographic holocaust. Without going half that far, we ought to be able to see that there is something odd about a tribe which successfully moves heaven and earth to have everyone commemorate the extermination of a third of its members, while failing in comfortable, safe, prosperous circumstances to reproduce itself. Is there, perhaps, a connection?
If the American Diaspora is to affirm itself and its independent future convincingly, it will have to do more than build mausoleums. A degree of separation, a bit of praxis, a measure of knowledge of the tradition and of Hebrew—only these can save the community from dwindling to the status of a kind of suburban Amish a hundred years hence, when most New World synagogues and temples will have been converted to mosques.
The museums, it is true, could play a small and useful role in preventing or delaying that. “You have to bring a person to his Jewish feelings through what he cares about,” Rabbi Hier once told his detractors. “The Holocaust is a tragedy most Jews can relate to, while keeping kosher or observing [the Sabbath] is alien.”
His settlement with the ACLU notwithstanding, then, a second audience is being targeted by Rabbi Hier’s museum: namely, the growing mass of liberal-minded Americans of Jewish extraction who know what the Holocaust refers to and in-choately care, while possessing not the faintest idea of what their own tradition consists of. If some hope remains of bringing them to Judaism, of winning them over to the living, shrinking community, should any means be considered beyond the pale? A visit to one of the Holocaust museums, so the reasoning goes, or an evening of discussion under its auspices, could lead to something more.
It would take a very stern moralist, or someone ignorant of the trend lines, to begrudge the rabbi or anyone else this sub-agenda. Perhaps a handful of lapsed Jews will be moved as he would like them to be after visiting Beit Hashoah, and another handful similarly moved by a pilgrimage to the Mall.
Yet most of those going to “Daniel’s Story” and to these museums will be non-Jews. Which leaves the question to be asked, how long will they appreciate being taught that the bystander shares the guilt of the perpetrator? The ways of America are mysterious and wonderful, perhaps uniquely benign, yet one need not trust in them blindly. Did the U.S. stand by in Bosnia? It did, and it probably will not and perhaps should not intervene in future such horrors. It might be better for American Jews, practicing and nonpracticing, if these museums, which are perceived as operating in the collective Jewish name, simply let the exhibits speak for themselves. Kissinger’s misgivings otherwise may yet be borne out.