Holocaust museums more than public history

Edward Rothstein has written a number of reviews concerning Holocaust museums and education centers over the last few months for the New York Times. The series includes the Museum of Tolerance, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. In each article, he discusses the complexities of presenting the history of the Holocaust and finds a number of problematic issues as he visits each institution.

Eventually, each of these articles circles back to the trend in Holocaust museums to tie their narratives to prejudice, intolerance, and genocide, rather than merely following a straightforward historical account. For example, during his article on the Illinois Holocaust Museum he comments:

This approach is also used to justify the inclusion of the Holocaust in school curriculums. And it is strange. We wouldn’t expect a museum about World War II to end with lessons about the evils of all wars. We wouldn’t expect an examination of American slavery to end with platitudes about the many despicable ways people treat others as objects. Why then here? Why the reluctance to study history in its context instead of diluting it with generalities and vague analogies? This path also ends up encouraging those always ready to invoke wild comparisons to Nazism and the Holocaust.

As it happens, I was recently at the National World War II Museum, and while they do not attempt a message about the evils of war, they do conclude with a rather somber and reflective look at America’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. In addition, at various points in the exhibit, they discuss how the Axis and Allies used propaganda to represent their enemy as well as the United States’ role in interning Japanese-American citizens. In other words, they do in fact draw visitors into important ethical debates which they hope will challenge and inform their guests.

What Rothstein is missing is that Holocaust Museums in this country are often not founded with the intention of being traditional public history museums. Germany, Austria, and Poland can easily accomplish this, and do so, by providing stark reminders of the dark hour they share while pinning it against the larger backdrop of their respective historical narratives. Instead, museums in this country are often founded as reminders of how societies, even supposedly civilized ones, can devolve into barbarism because of ethnic hatreds.

Which leaves us with the question of “why” give the public a reminder? The answer to that question is simple – because these atrocities continue to take place. This idea is often reflected in Holocaust museum mission statements.

Illinois Holocaust Museum’s mission statement:

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice and indifference. The museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.

Holocaust Museum Houston:

Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors’ legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, we teach the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.

Museum of Tolerance’s mission statement:

The Museum of Tolerance, the Center’s educational arm, founded in 1993 challenges visitors to confront bigotry and racism, and to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts. It hosts 350,000 visitors annually including 130,000 students.

Thus, the real problem Holocaust museums in the United States have been grappling with is the opposite of what Rothstein points towards; even though each hopes to serve as a reminder of what can happen they were often designed around a single event, which provides little evidence for the historical continuum that is genocide. The solution to this for many museums, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has been a rethinking of how they deliver their message, leading to expansions where instances of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations are discussed.

While Rothstein makes a number of good points in these articles, it is important to note that these museums are not designed as traditional public history institutions and frequently blend history with education and activism. This should not be seen as a flaw though as the message they are attempting to impart is an important one.

USHMM hosts educational seminar

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is holding a seminar this week for United Nations information personnel. The series is designed to promote the idea that public outreach and education can prevent future genocides.

At a groundbreaking seminar at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., participants will examine topics as diverse as the genesis of famous anti-Semitic texts and genocide in the Internet era.

The seminar, “The History of the Holocaust: Confronting Hatred, Preventing Genocide and Cultivating Moral Responsibility,” is the result of a new partnership between the museum and the UN Department of Public Information (DPI).

Information Officers from UN Information Centres in Paraguay, Colombia, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil and the United States are taking part to support educational initiatives on the Holocaust by Member States, mandated in a 2005 General Assembly resolution.

They are exploring how intolerance can lead to the breakdown of democratic values and, in its extreme form, turn into mass killing, according to DPI’s outreach division.

It’s good to see USHMM creating programs for the UN, but I can’t help but wonder if it woudn’t be more affective if the actual UN representatives and their staff were attending.

UK teachers clarification

Deborah Lipstadt, of History on Trial, posted an entry to clean up the reports going around that the U.K. has dropped Holocaust Education from their curriculum. I don’t believe I implied that in my recent post, but just to clarify my statements along with Lipstadt’s post, it’s the teachers who are avoiding the topic, it’s not an educationally mandated curriculum shift.

Banned Books Week

On May 10, 1933, trucks loaded with 25,000 books from public, state, and university libraries rolled into the Opernplatz in Berlin. Members of the Sturm Abteilung and Nazi Student Groups placed the books on wooden pallets and proceeded to set them on fire. It was considered a “funeral pyre of the intellect.”

Across Germany, Nazi youth held similar ceremonies, clearing books out of libraries, temples, and churches. Eventually, the German Student Association created a list — Zwölf Thesen wider den undeutschen Geist – consisting of twelve criteria they thought needed to be met for acceptable German literature.

During the Opernplatz burnings, Goebbels gave a short speech to the gathered crowd:

The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism has come to an end and the German revolution has again opened the way for the true essence of being German. This revolution was not started at the top, it burst forth from the bottom, upwards. It is, therefore, in the very best sense of the word, the expression of the will of the Volk. There stands the worker next to the bourgeois, student next to soldier and young worker, here stand the intellectuals next to the proletariat.

During the past fourteen years while you, students, had to suffer in silent shame the humiliations of the November Republic, your libraries were inundated with the trash and filth of Jewish “asphalt” literati.
[…]
Therefore, you are doing the right thing as you, at this midnight hour, surrender to the flames the evil spirit of the past. There the intellectual basis of the November Republic is crushed to the ground. But from the rubble will arise victoriously the Phoenix of a new spirit, a spirit that we carry forth, that we nourish and to which we give decisive weight.

Among the authors that eventually made the Student Association’s list was Helen Keller. In an open letter to the students, she wrote:

History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.

You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds. I gave all the royalties of my books for all time to the German soldiers blinded in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and compassion for the German people

I deplore the injustice and unwisdom of passing on to unborn generations the stigma of your deeds.

The thirst to silence ideas continues today. In 2005, there were 405 attempts to remove books from libraries, and it’s estimated that only one in five challenges actually gets reported to the ALA. A dim reminder that even as we take a stand for freedom and democracy in other people’s country, we continue to struggle with the most basic of liberties in our own.

2006 BBW; Read Banned Books: They're Your Ticket to Freedom

Holocaust lecture series

Yad Vashem is beginning a lecture series examining the Holocaust, which will be available as podcasts. The first lecture in the series is up now — The Allies and the Holocaust by David Silberklang — and examines the various factors that shaped the Allies’ response. Each of these podcasts comes with a set of relevant links to help researchers and teachers find addition information on that lecture’s topic.