Monday, November 26, 2012

Lessons from the Past

While in the Chicago area we decided to visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum.  The museum is located in Skokie, a community that was the focus of a neo-Nazi march in the late 1970s. At the time the population of Skokie was half Jewish and home to about 7000 survivors.  The march galvanized the community which organized a foundation to support Holocaust education, ultimately leading to the museum.

I have visited many Holocaust museums and exhibitions throughout the years and done much reading on the Holocaust.  Through the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project I have also done a number of interviews with survivors.  I came to this visit with a fair amount of knowledge so was curious if I would find anything new. My test of a good museum  is if I experience new information and insights that cause me to examine my knowledge from a different vantage point.  The Illinois Holocaust Museum passed that test with flying colors.

The entrance to the museum was past bushes with branches that were as gnarly as fingers.Spiky rocks set in the ground at various angles mirrored the larger field of boulders one finds at Treblinka, each representing a town, a lost Jewish community.  The architecture was clearly designed to mimic that of a prison, but also had a reflection room  designed to capture light, the antithesis of the dark prison-like structure.

The exhibition began with a view of those lost Jewish communities, preserved in memory and faded photos.  One cannot fully understand the impact of the  Holocaust without realizing that in addition to countless lives, a world was lost, whole communities erased.

We then moved into a historical view of Hitler's rise to power.  Unsuccessful in his first attempt at political power he decided to use the democratic process to in effect vote democracy down.  I found myself reflecting on the recent political environment in the US and the attempts to suppress access to voting.  As an American Jew I have never believed that any country is immune from the events of the Holocaust, even the United States.  I think that is a fundamental difference between me and my non-Jewish friends and it deeply informs my political views. I believe we must always be vigilant in protecting human rights as each incursion brings us closer to a precipice, a diminishment of our humanity that makes all sorts of evil possible.

As Hitler's power built, many Germans supported him on economic grounds even though they didn't share his anti-Semitic views.  They assumed that once in power he would be forced to moderate his views.  I have heard uncomfortable echoes of such beliefs in our recent political discourse, reminding me once again of the vulnerability of any country once it loses its mooring in fundamental human rights.  I am convinced that there are lessons to be learned in the study of this prewar time in German history.

The museum then began to move into the events which first affected German Jews. They looked at the Jews who escaped Germany before the war, 50% exited as they witnessed the looming dangers up close.    I had interviewed a woman whose parents were able to escape to Shanghai and a woman who was on the Kindertransport to London.  These two stories were echoed in the Shanghai and Kindertransport stories told at the museum. Until my interview with Trudy I had not realized that the early policies of the Nazis encouraged Jews to leave Germany. Trudy had told me that her father was released from a concentration camp on the condition that he leave the country.  He was required to report to the Gestapo each week on his plans.  Documents in the museum told precisely this story.  It was only with the conquering of additional countries with their significant Jewish populations coupled with the unwillingness of other countries to accept the Jews,that the Germans began to concoct the Final Solution to what they  referred to as the Jewish Problem.

The exhibition continues through the early measures against the Jews to gathering them in ghettos and ultimately their extermination in forests and camps.  The initial measures were gradually implemented with an awareness of the world response which in fact proved negligible.  Here again was another point where actions taken could have altered the flow of world events.  When word of the camps was sent through diplomatic channels, the State Department with its anti-Semitic bent suppressed the message.  How can one adequately address  the movement from  bigotry to murder when one is infested with the same bigotry?

Countries fell like dominoes to Hitler's advances.  A telling comment by one of the survivors in the museum video was that the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto succeeded in standing up to the Nazis for longer than any country that he invaded.  When I reflected on why that was possible I noted that the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto saw certain death ahead, they chose to fight to the end and die with dignity if necessary.  Countries did not hold that same perspective.

The other fact that the museum noted was that two wars were being fought, one for world domination and one against the Jews.  The US only participated in the first war.  I had not bisected the war into two wars, but that perspective clarifies the role of the US and its failure to respond to Jewish refugees and news of the camps until the end of the war when there was no room for denial.

The museum also goes a step beyond liberation to follow the lives of survivors from Displaced Persons (DP) camps on through immigration into their new lives and new families.  The museum does an impressive job of sharing the full breadth of the story and highlighting aspects that made me consider the gradual erosions in civilized society that can lead to unthinkable horrors.

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