Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On why I the US Holocaust Museum was disappointing

While in Washington D.C. for the Inauguration, I had time to visit most of the museums the city is so well known for. One of them, was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which I thought was especially important to see, not only as a human being, but being both Russian and gay, I would have not only been deported and gassed, but most likely suffered the Nazis' worst medicinal experiments because, while Jews were barely human, for Nazis, gays were something far worse. Also, having heard my grandmother's stories of surviving the war, I simply HAD to go.

So I went.

And it was exactly what I had expected. A big, moving, space that tells one of humanity's darkest stories in a succinct, moving, and powerful way. It was an experience I was glad I had.

Still, I was disappointed, because in the end it seemed like not even the museum could wrap itself around the meaning and impact of the genocide it commemorates. It's design, may be solid, with the top floor being dedicated to the build up of antisemitism before the war, and where the concept of racial purity arose. Then, there's a floor for the opening years of the war, for the ghettos, the pogroms and the beginnings of the genocide, and finally there is a floor for the final years, for the concentration camps and the eventual liberation. This design works, but the museum doesn't mention how between the wars, the German state was essentially dismantled by the Allies as retribution for the immense cost of the first world war. The museum doesn't mention how with their cities destroyed, no jobs or food, massive wartime casualties and post-war demoralization, the German people flocked to Hitler as their savior, instead portraying them as innately anti-Semitic.

That's only a minor quibble compared to what I felt was a glaring omission from the exhibit. Mentioned only once, and briefly, were the bizarre, disturbing and horrendous experiments conducted by the Nazis on everybody from twins to the mentally ill, to the handicapped and specifically on the Roma. I can image they don't want kids seeing it, but you know, it happened, and also wait until your kid is older or even better, explain it to them. Also not covered was the ethical question of using the Nazi's research, sometimes the only data available, in modern science.

Essentially, the museum did not do enough to convey the absolute maltreatment of human beings and the complete disregard and loss of humanity inflicted in the concentration camps. It came close, with videos of the camps' liberation, and a room filled with victims' shoes, but otherwise it relied on the numbers to tell the story and chose to end on a feel-good note of a survivor marrying her liberator. It's enough for most, I suppose, but this is the Holocaust and what was done must in no way be edited or watered down because the droves of people and school groups that visit everyday can not comprehend the meaning of it without first seeing it's extent.

One of the people I went with said she's noticed the exhibit being toned down over the years, because people couldn't deal with it's unabashed portrayal and that's truly disappointing.

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