It has been very hard for me to write my thoughts upon seeing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time last week, even though I knew what I wanted to say from the moment I saw the first display. The difficulty comes in overcoming my powerful emotional reaction as a Jew so that I can write as an American about how the Holocaust Museum fits into my country’s distorted self-image.
The Holocaust Museum presents in stunning detail the step-by-step process that the Nazis and their German and non-German collaborators took first to strip European Jews of their wealth, places in society and dignity, and then to destroy them in one of the most horrifying and efficient mass murders in human history. An oppressively riotous succession of disturbing images fills the museum—photographs, posters, signs, books, films, disembodied voices, maps, implements of torture and murder, railroad cars, concentration camp bunkers, personal effects, even the shoes of the gassed. The crowded approach of many of our national museums works to poignant effect here, as it makes us feel in spots the claustrophobic terror of the railway cars and camp bunkers. The Museum does an excellent job on the facts, even tracking the indifference of the United States and the rest of the world to the fate of the Jews and other Nazi victims. I can’t imagine any sane person not coming away from the museum a little ashamed of the human race and dedicated to ending genocide.
A moving experience and a worthwhile museum…but the United States had no business building it, and it has no business funding it.
I object to the American government involvement in the Holocaust Museum because it’s only one genocide among many and one for which the United States is almost completely blameless. Yet while we give $47.3 million a year to support this reminder of Germany’s inhumanity to Jews, we don’t have a single museum dedicated to slavery, nor one dedicated to the destruction of Native Americans. While it is true that other museums touch upon the American horrors of Native American genocide and genocidal slavery, none in the United States is dedicated exclusively to these shameful activities, each of which lasted about 20 times as long as the Nazi era. In fact, the idea for a National Museum of Slavery died in 2008 for lack of funding and a Museum of Slavery and the Civil War in Selma, Alabama is so small it doesn’t even have a website or Wikipedia listing.
We ignore our history and yet can summon up the resources to commemorate the destruction of a tiny minority elsewhere (my people, but a tiny minority).
Contrast the way the United States has swept its genocidal atrocities under the rug to what Gemany has done since World War II. There are 7 holocaust museums in Germany, plus a large number of memorials and internment camps. Virtually every city has a public monument that explicitly says, “We did a horrible thing which we will never do again.” Now to many victims and their families, saying “I’m sorry” just isn’t enough. But it’s better than ignoring one’s own crimes while pointing a finger at a former enemy across the ocean.
There is a way, though, for the United States to escape this contradiction of memorializing one foreign atrocities while ignoring our own: We can repurpose the Holocaust Museum to make it a National Museum against Genocide.
Instead of three floors of exhibits about one example of genocide, we could have separate sections for a number of genocides, including, among others, the recent Rwandan, Darfur and Srebrenica genocides; the Holodomor (Stalin’s Ukrainian genocide by starvation); the Armenian genocide by the Turks at the end of World War I; the British 19th century Black War against the Tasmanian aborigines; the 19th century Great Irish and the World War II Bengali famines, both induced by British economic policies; the 16th century destruction of the Dzungar Mongols by the Chinese Qing Dynasty; the 15th century destruction of the Chama by the Vietnamese; and the German’s early 20th century destruction of the Herero and the Nama in Southwest Africa.
Who knows? In a United States National Museum against Genocide, there might even be a little room for exhibits on American slavery and our explicit policy of destruction of Native Americans.