Do Holocaust Museums Make Us Better People?


A vendor just off the National Mall hands Celia Barnes a bag of potato chips and points down 14th Street. "It's that way to the Holocaust," he says, directing the vacationing teacher to a limestone museum two blocks away.

Having just exhausted herself at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, the most popular tourist attraction in the city (and the world), Barnes is en route to the Vietnam Memorial, the 11th most popular site here. But first she has a ticket for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, open five years now and already No. 7 on the list.

About 9 million people--more than the number of Jews killed by Nazis in Europe 50 years ago--have coursed their way through the Holocaust exhibits, through a detailed narration of the worst moment in Jewish history in 2,000 years, past piles of human hair and other relics of moral chaos.

The museum speaks eloquently for itself--of indifference, racism, genocide, heroism, survival. But the people who visit, and what they bring home with them, are another story.

Many are neither survivors nor scholars. More than 85% are--like Barnes--not even Jewish. They also are relatively young. Two-thirds are 18 to 44 years old, which makes them too young to recall the events of 1933-1945, though old enough to understand how horrific they were.

"I knew about the Holocaust from school and the movies, but really I had no idea," says Barnes, 28, as she leaves the museum, jacket hanging off her, sneakers untied. She is, she says, emotionally "spent." Instead of heading to the Vietnam Memorial, she returns to her hotel to nap, to retreat from her overwhelming afternoon.

A few days after her four-hour visit to the museum, it is still on her mind. The Holocaust has become a prism through which she tries to see her daily life.

"I'm confused," she says. "This is not part of my life. But . . . I thought a lot about bystanders, the Germans who didn't stop it. Why didn't they?" She wonders if, back in her tiny hometown in the far reaches of New England, she would be alert to human disaster around the corner. "Would I notice if something awful was creeping up?"

In its own quarterly surveys of visitors, the Holocaust Memorial has learned that most people, like Barnes, have an "extremely meaningful experience" there. According to these surveys, by popular political pollster Peter Hart, most people come away bemoaning man's intolerance and hoping it will end. They are also impressed with the "enormity of the event" and they feel the museum portrays it objectively. One consultant calls the survey results "comparable to a rave review"--creepy though a "rave review" of the Holocaust may sound.

The museum visitors--75% of whom are college educated and earning more than $50,000 a year--don't want something like the Holocaust to happen again but think it could, and will, and in fact is happening. They leave thinking about Rwanda, Bosnia and acts of inhumanity in China.

But the museum carefully avoids making comparisons to other genocides in history. Rather, it encourages people to reflect upon the "moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy."

Critics of the museum say if its message were as powerful as it should be, visitors might throw down their cameras and souvenirs and head for the White House gates to force President Clinton and the whole government to stop genocide around the world.

Indeed, with all the talk of the Holocaust--which has become quite the hot topic in recent years--there are questions about where all the talk leads.

A half century after the fact, the Holocaust is in the press more than it was during all 12 years of the Final Solution, according to a Harvard University study by author James Carroll. Between stories about Swiss banks, plundered artwork, Madeleine Albright's recently discovered Jewish roots and Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners," the Holocaust is finally persistent front page news.

As we approach the end of the 20th century, Carroll says, there is a need to face the truth and to ask "unsettling questions." Indeed, America is increasingly bearing witness--on its National Mall and elsewhere--to an event that happened in Europe. There are 80 to 100 Holocaust centers in this country including major museums in Los Angeles, New York and Texas. "Schindler's List" set a U.S. television record with 65 million viewers; new books, other movies, and scholarly studies keep streaming out, maintaining the Holocaust as a yardstick of oppression and atrocity.

Peter Novick, a history professor at the University of Chicago who is writing a book on the "uses" of the Holocaust in American culture over the past 50 years, takes a pretty dim view of Holocaust memorials and museums.

Even though he sees the museum in Washington as a "triumph of scholarship and good taste," he doesn't think it accomplishes much. It would make more sense in Germany, Israel or the Axis countries, he says, rather than in the United States where there are few survivors and even fewer perpetrators.

"The notion of coming to any kind of historical understanding of what was going on there on the basis of spending a couple of hours looking at displays is nutsy," says Novick. "We pay lip service to it."

And while the museum could "sensitize" people, Novick continues, making it a benchmark of atrocity "can as easily trivialize crimes of greater magnitude."

From the start in 1980, when then-President Jimmy Carter gave government land for the museum to placate politically powerful American Jews upset by his Middle Eastern policies, some people have worried that the most prominent Jewish presence on the Mall would evoke an image of Jews as "victims," people who get beaten up, rather than people steeped in ethical monotheism who have accomplished so much in this country.

But Michael Berenbaum, the original director of the museum who now is compiling testimony of 37,150 survivors for a Steven Spielberg project, believes that such controversies have been resolved by the capacity crowds swarming the museum every day.

"The Naval Academy sends its entire class of midshipmen after basic training; the State Department sends its senior foreign officers; inner-city kids come every day," Berenbaum notes. "Nobody really has to ask if the museum has a legitimate place in Washington. Attendance gives it legitimacy."

Sara Bloomfield, the associate director of the museum who has been there since its inception, insists that though it would take a years-long doctorate study to understand how 9 million visitors have been affected, she knows what she hears in the halls and cafeteria.

"What effect can any museum experience have on people?" she asks. "Change what they do? I don't know. But if you think history only speaks to people where it happens, you're wrong. This was a very particular event about individuals, human nature, societies, the role of governments, the role of social institutions. People see the lessons, the meaning, the threads that link this to us again."

Over the summer the museum hired pollster Hart to conduct a focus group with 10 visitors. They spent two hours together around a table, reflecting on their visits to the museum. One man said he had no idea that the Danish had saved so many Jews. Another came away mistakenly believing that along with Jews, as many Gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses had died (a conclusion perhaps prompted by the museum's inclusion of other groups).

A British visitor who lives in Massachusetts was struck that ordinary people had done nothing during the Holocaust. "So I think if anything, if it changes anyone," he said, "perhaps it's that you think a little bit more about your place as a citizen within a democracy."

A 26-year-old black high school teacher from Georgia came away with a preconceived notion reinforced: that Jews in the Holocaust and blacks in the slave trade suffered in much the same way. She also left with a grander, darker vision.

"I think that the people in office [in America] let it happen. Everyone is happy to visit the White House and the Capitol. . . . But there's also something here to remind us that not all the people in the White House or in any of the government buildings are really for world peace. . . ."

A 19-year-old student from Texas talked about her generation's tendency not "to think about things," and how Hitler appealed to the mindless instincts of youth. "We're especially able to kind of switch gears without actually thinking it through as much as we might, well . . . as much as we should."

An arts administrator from California decided she should educate herself further about the Holocaust, perhaps by going to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

For many, the museum has prompted unpredictable thoughts. Stan Getz, a Jewish lawyer from Los Angeles, was there six months ago, chaperoning dozens of Boy Scouts. On the phone recently, he said he couldn't recall anything specific but he knew that events in his daily life had triggered thoughts of the museum and the Holocaust over the last six months.

"Really it was that room full of shoes that I remember most," he said. "It was quite impressive that they gathered all those shoes. I sometimes just think about them and the people who wear them.

"I mean, wore them."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 17, 1997 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction Holocaust museums--Discussing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, professor Peter Novick said that making the Holocaust a benchmark of atrocity "can as easily trivialize crimes of lesser magnitude." He also said that Holocaust museums make sense in Germany, Israel "and occupied countries," more so than in the United States. These remarks were misquoted in a story that ran Dec. 11 in Life & Style.
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