Visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

"If we lived in a just and honorable world, this would not be our only museum visit in Washington DC. We would also be spending time at one dedicated to the history of black/white relations in the United States. Unfortunately, such a museum does not yet exist, although an outstanding one is now being developed after years of preparation. Despite great gains finally realized in the Civil Rights movement, America has been reluctant to memorialize and acknowledge—in an official national setting—its history of slavery and subsequent pernicious attitudes and actions towards black Americans. Turning to another despicable aspect of American history, we could actually meet at the American Indian Museum close by on the Mall. However, this handsome institution is conceived in ways that basically and deliberately avoid recognition of the intended displacement and destruction of the American Indians population.

You might refer positively to American immigration and the lauded reputation of a successful heterogeneous population. Nonetheless, a close reading of American history reveals extended periods of hostile attitudes and behaviors towards certain immigrant populations. Fortunately, over the past decades integration has decreased many exclusionary and discriminatory practices. The history of immigration, however, is profoundly different from that concerning blacks and American Indians.

Thus, we are here at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that justly makes a powerful claim on our attention because of the universal aspects of its history. It is one of horrors: a ferocious ideology of destruction; a genocide built on the myths and inventions of race. For many years, visiting this Museum was a significant part of the HIA summer programs in Europe. The America Fellows would start here with three days of orientation and exploration before flying to Europe to join the other Fellows. Several months later, the European Fellows would make the reverse trip and visit DC, including three days at the Museum.

Now you are here only for one day—one day that may strike some of you as one day too long. You might ask why focus on the Holocaust once again? And why in the United States? I think we owe you our best attempts at cogent and thoughtful explanation. First of all, HIA was conceived and founded on an examination of issues, in Denmark and The Netherlands, relating to World War II, the Holocaust and resistance to Nazi Germany’s induced tyranny. That is a commitment that we honor to enhance the concerns and values of those who initially supported the organization.

We also have to ask ourselves about the ongoing relevance and justification of that initial concept or formulation. Let me suggest that we look at the Holocaust—the attempt to destroy a particular minority—and the decades that have been shadowed by that catastrophe as providing the historical and moral foundations for facing critical contemporary issues. They raise questions that are at the heart of HIA’s raison d’être and its outreach to and impact on a broader public: engagement in minority issues predicated upon civic and moral responsibility.

1. How are minorities defined and what are their rights?

2. How do nations incorporate universal values of human rights into their national goals and collective identity?

3. How do nations process their past and determine what they remember and what they willingly forget?

4. How do different societies use interpretations of the past to meet or avoid meeting present needs?

5. What are the bulwarks against the disintegration of civil society?

6. What warning signs to prevent extremists from assuming power?

7. How does suspicion of different groups lead to prejudice, discrimination, hatred, violence and, in some cases, to implement genocidal ideologies?

8. How do societies resolve issues that pit one minority against another?

9. How do international institutions enable nations to find common ground in values, justice, the prevention of violence, genocide, mass atrocities and punishment of crimes, the rehabilitation of victims?

10. What obligations does a nation assume in respect to past genocides, atrocities and other gross violations of human rights?

11. Do minorities in one country have the right or obligation to judge and hold accountable minority issues in another country?

The questions confront all of our democratic societies. There are no exact or uniform answers, just various attempts at resolution—from the meager and ineffectual to the ambitious and bold. The challenge before us is to recognize the commonality of the tests and trials in the United States and Europe. Let me suggest that the history of race relations in America is as important for Europeans to understand, as is the Holocaust for Americans. Destruction was not the intention for America’s black population as it was for Native Americans. Yet, these three examples represent extremes of individual and collective evil in human behavior that enabled one group to devastate another.

We live in an era now when the established or traditional configurations of community are challenged again on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite its democratic and inclusive ideals, the US is enmeshed in tensions and uncertainties over illegal immigrants. Unresolved attitudes on health, welfare, employment and education reflect and often inflame convoluted legacies of race and class. In Europe, the presence of millions of immigrants and their progeny in the second and third generations evoke unanticipated, serious tensions over the nature of national identity, cohesion, the purposes and scope of the welfare state and, in the most extreme challenge, the actual physical security of the nation and its citizens.

In the aftermath of the depression, fascism and war, Western European nations agreed that they could not fight each other ever again. In the aftermath of the depression of the 30s and success of fascism, European nations agreed that they needed to stabilize and secure a decent standard of living for all of their inhabitants—irrespective of religion or ethnic affiliation. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, European nations signed onto the Declaration of Human Rights, an anti-Genocide convention, anti-racist strictures and the establishment of international legal entities to protect the democratic states and rights of individuals against unfair treatment by the state.

Minority problems have arisen within the interstices of these noble understandings and institutions—a post WWII template predicated on both the fear of repeating past mass and individual cruelty and idealistic expectations for the future. The problem is that the template ignores the profound difficulties inherent in differences and diversity: the ever-changing mysteries of community, traditions, trust, religion, secularism and identity; and the new fusion of suspicions, fears, discrimination, passivity, hatred and violence directed at and sometimes emanating from the “other” group. In theory and to a large degree, the welfare state is neutral—but people are not. The political philosopher and intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin warned, in one of his probing essays, that human beings often want contradictory or even irreconcilable things—good things such as respect for the diversity of humankind on the global scale as well as the need for a collective national cu lture and reassuring identity.

This Holocaust Museum can only show you what went very wrong. The Holocaust was a unique genocide: the culmination of centuries of viewing Jews as different and threatening outsiders, habitually resistant to Christianity. Empires and nations experimented with devices of separation by placing limitations on Jews in regard to professions, property, education, clothing and political rights. According to the historian Ben Kaplan, centuries ago toleration, as opposed to tolerance, meant building recognizable boundaries to ensure separation and prevent integration and assimilation. When those boundaries were abandoned in the so-called modern age of democracy, liberalism and enlightenment of the mid-19th Century to the mid-20th Century, Jews were, paradoxically, as threatening because they tried too hard—and seemingly successfully— to assimilate and become indistinguishable from other citizens in their nation.

Depraved human behavior developed in the midst of so-called civilized societies: highly trained doctors used their skills to defile human beings; Bauhaus trained architects misused their modern sensibilities, once dedicated to imaginative design, to build primitive barracks at Birkenau; mediocre management agents organized mass deportations and killings; political ideologues and fanatic propagandists drove the power of a violent, predatory state into the psyche of the masses; and populations of bystanders, millions of little players on diverse national stages, profited from passive complicity.

While we have extensive knowledge about the Holocaust, we need to probe constantly for constructive meanings and implications. There are those who believe that the critical questions are asking ourselves how would we have behaved or what would we do in a similar situation. I do not agree. Instead, we need to concentrate on what can we learn from the Holocaust about human capacities for good and evil and how to sustain the values that militate against the fear and hatred towards a minority.

Despite the fact that we know a great deal about the Holocaust, there are a number of detrimental forces that diminish its importance and even provide fuel for the increase of anti-Semitism. One response is so-called Holocaust fatigue: enough on the subject; European nations have paid sufficient attention and money in restitution over almost 70 years; the burden of guilt is used up. Another response comes from many Muslim and Arab countries that oppose the Jewish state in the Middle East; they dismiss, distort and, at the extreme, even deny the existence of the Holocaust. A third response comes from a sense of futility and defeat: the Holocaust, having given birth to the commitment to “Never Again” to genocide, has not stopped it from occurring innumerable times in recent decades.

Although these dismissive attitudes often dominate current discussion about the Holocaust, they must not be allowed to submerge knowledge of a genocide directed against the Jewish minority in Europe—a genocide of universal significance that has profoundly shaped policies and attitudes that affect current minority issues that we must face now. In this respect, let me suggest a final set of questions that relate directly to you as members of an emerging group of young leaders.

1. How can we use values, knowledge of the past and innovative ideas and actions, generated by younger generations, to increase the stability of diverse, democratic societies?

2. How can we use new technological forms of communications, the advanced tools of younger generations, to address historical questions, reach minority and majority populations, improve civic engagement and promote social responsibilities?

3. How can we provide models of collaboration through networks—formal and informal—in support of diverse democratic societies?

Albert Einstein has written: “History is replete with the struggle for human rights, an eternal struggle for which victory always eludes. Yet to tire in that struggle would mean to bring about the destruction of society.” Thus, we are in this museum for a very specific purpose. It is part of HIA’s ongoing task to provide programs and support that enable all of us to face conflicts, adhere to values and develop new norms of living with the inescapable and often promising reality of diversity."

These remarks were delivered on January 18, 2010 by HIA Founder and Executive Director Judith S. Goldstein at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The occasion was the opening of the "Understanding America" program for 35 HIA Fellows from Europe.

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