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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Never again, never forget

This afternoon I paid a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on 14th Street between C Street and Independence Avenue SW in Washington, D.C. I had long wondered why this country needed a museum devoted to history's greatest crime - the U.S., after all, wasn't directly involved except in the capacity of American troops (along with their British and Soviet allies) acting as liberators of the notorious death camps. Or so I thought. But after witnessing the various exhibitions, I realized that the Holocaust isn't something that can be thought of only in terms of its victims and those who victimized them. No, what happened during those dark years belongs in the collective consciousness of everyone on this planet, and siting a Holocaust museum in this nation's capital ensures that a great many people from all over the world will learn what happened, and ensure that nothing like this ever occurs again...I hope.

Photography of the exhibits isn't permitted, which is just as well, because many of the photographs are extremely graphic, to say the least. You start on the fourth floor, which explores the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and the step-by-step escalation in the persecution of the Jews and other groups (socialists, homosexuals, Roma etc.) deemed inferior or threatening by the National Socialists. The third floor covers World War II and the Final Solution in all its horrific details. Among the more disturbing things on display are an actual railroad car used to transport people to the death camps, film of the gruesome medical experiments performed by the likes of Mengele and personal effects of the victims, collected after they had been led off to the gas chambers. The second floor goes into detail on the liberation of the camps at the hands of the horrified Allied soldiers, as well as exhibits on those who risked their lives to save Jews from certain death. It goes without saying that these three floors make for an extremely sobering experience.

I'm not talented enough with words to accurately express the depths of the simultaneous feelings of rage and sadness I felt while making my way through the museum. I came away with the knowledge that while the 20th century saw some horrific crimes against mankind (Stalin's purges, atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army, the horrendous loss of life in China caused by Mao Zedong, the killing fields of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge), nothing can compare with the Holocaust, the result of a charismatic madman and his unholy amalgamation of eugenics, ideology and racism, and carried out with the acquiescence of far too many people who knew better. If I had my way, all those who in recent years who have so casually thrown out terms like "Hitler" and "Nazi" to denigrate those they disagree with politically should be forced to spend as long as necessary in this museum to realize how, by doing so, they are shaming and cheapening the memory of those who suffered at the hands of the real murderers.

Every visitor to the museum is encouraged to pick up an Identification Card, which tells the story of a real person who lived through the Holocaust. Herman Klein was a Czechoslovak Jew who spent time in Auschwitz and a labor camp built in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, before being liberated from Dachau by U.S. troops.

In the span of only seven months, I have visited both the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and have seen for myself the two greatest atrocities ever committed by human beings against human beings. In the case of the former, it was my government that carried out the terrible act. In the latter, it was my government (along with too many others) that could have done so much more to at least alleviate some of the suffering of the Jews by opening up our borders before the war, but didn't (antisemitism was rife in the State Department, my current employer, in the 1930's). The tragedy of the Holocaust may have been a singular evil, but it is one that must never be forgotten. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thankfully, remain the only cities (so far) to have suffered nuclear destruction. The same can't be when it comes to genocide, unfortunately, as Rwanda and Srebenica demonstrate. Never forget what happened, but even more importantly, make sure it never happens again.

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