So I recently went on a trip to Washington, D.C. with Ben and our friend Kaleb. As part of this vacation, we paid a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now, I consider myself a historian. I’ve studied the Holocaust, I’ve seen the images and the videos, and I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for when we walked inside.
I was not prepared at all.
I firmly believe that there are place memories. Locations and objects involved in events so powerful that they can imprint on people interacting with them years later. The artifacts at the museum have those memories and the curators pulled no punches in the exhibit’s design. I broke down in tears twice.
The Holocaust is seen by many as the darkest chapter of human history… some teachers actually teach it that way. Undoubtedly, however, while it is one of the darker parts, it is not alone on a pedestal. That is the truly tragic part. Never Again is the slogan of those who acknowledge the horror of the attempted genocide of the Jewish people, but it is still happening in the world. The museum also had exhibits on the Khmer Rouge and the current events in Syria. The main exhibit includes a quote from Hitler about the Armenian genocide and how no one made a big deal of it, even in the 1930s. These are just four examples of genocide that have occurred in the last century… only 100 years!
Humans are beings full of potential. We have the capacity for boundless compassion and kindness, but we are also capable of the harshest cruelty. It is something that people forget, or do not really understand. Yes, this thing happening right now is horrible, but it is not the first time humanity has done this. Why is anyone surprised? We only care about the things that are relevant to us, the tragedies happening right now. The Nepal earthquake is supplanted in the news feeds by riots in Baltimore because this is the American media and they think that because it is closer to us, we care more.
I want to say that the Holocaust was the darkest chapter in our history, but I cannot. Because that would lessen the horror of the genocides that came before and after. It implies that something that bad can never happen again, and thinking that way makes us unwilling to see the signs should that not be the case. I will not allow myself to be blinded like that. The horror of that period is something that should never be forgotten, but should never be dismissed as the worst, or the last genocide. It is a stark reminder of the darkest depths of human nature, to be sure… and we should study it, and be aware of it, so that we can recognize it and never allow it to happen again.
I want every student to pass through that train car and feel the pain and fear that I felt resonating in the wood. I want them to understand the horror, but I want them also to realize that this did not happen in a vacuum. The Holocaust was not the first genocide, nor the last. That it was not even the most successful (thankfully). I want them to realize that such a thing can and inevitably will happen again, and the only way to stop it is to not be ignorant of it and to not remain silent.
Genocide happens when we allow ourselves to see groups of people different from us as “The Other”… when we deny them our common humanity. The separations we create: gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, orientation, religion, ideology… they allow us to distinguish ourselves; but they can also be used to divide us. It is part of the lessons on the Holocaust that was forgotten… that the Nazi party was able to do this because they created the idea of the “Other”… that Jews, Roma, Homosexuals, and other groups were less than human, that it was okay to kill them. It is sickening to even think about. Western societies have seen decreases in antisemitism since the Holocaust, but that is on the rise. Discrimination against minority groups is getting worse in many areas. We have active attempts at genocide going on right now throughout the world. When does “Never Again” become a reality? When do we start realizing that slaughtering people for being different is wrong?
We, as human beings, have the potential to end this. The question is, when will we?