April 25, 1993|By MURRAY SALTZMAN

"Never again!" This phrase rings hollow now. Following World War II, it was meant to signal a new level of commitment to civilized standards of decency. "Never again!" would nations and peoples tolerate the systematic eradication of a culture, a religion, a race.

Elie Wiesel in "Night" portrayed the demonization of an entire people through bigotry and the "Big Lie". He captured that time's horror. Three children who attempted to escape from a concentration camp were hung by the Nazis. They lingered for three days. Their bodies, Elie Wiesel explained, were so emaciated, the rope failed to break their necks. The question was shouted by one of the inmates, all of whom were forced to observe the hanging: "Where is God?"

But, only silence. When only silence prevails, civilization is cast into that hellish pit of fiery self destruction now called the Holocaust. In silence the Holocaust began. In silence the Holocaust was carried out. Now there is still silence.

Perhaps the conception underlying "Never again!" is flawed from the outset. Perhaps no generation may guarantee anything for another. Perhaps it is impossible to say of our tomorrow's "Never again!" If this generation can be silent still today, then "Never again!" really means nothing.

What then can be the objective of the Holocaust Museum? Why pour so many millions of privately donated funds into a national edifice? Will the museum have relevance and impact 50 years from now or a hundred years from now? Will the next generation want to be confronted by, or even reminded of, this image of humanity debased? These questions occur as the nation observes the opening of the Holocaust Museum.

If the museum, or indeed the memory of the Holocaust itself, promotes the evocation of sorrow alone, as an end in itself, ironically this would represent a betrayal of the Jewish tradition. Judaism, more than anything else, is a pathway to life. Despite innumerable historic moments permeated with tragic dimension, Judaism remembers these events and times finally to affirm life over death, good over evil.

Most notably, the Biblical memory of slavery, rehearsed during the Passover observance, is directed to this purpose. First, there is a symbolic meal to internalize slavery's humiliation and degradation. A second meal follows which is a festive dinner to celebrate the redemption from slavery to freedom. Servitude must thus be transformed into a metaphor, guiding Jews beyond despair and darkness to aspiration and bright promise.

Degradation must always be followed by redemption. Endings must always initiate beginnings. Sorrow must always induce new hope.

Museums are significant tokens of civilization. Worthwhile museums advance the broadening of our humanity and the enlargement of our sensibilities. The Holocaust Museum must not simply acquaint us with moral failure manifested by a world beguiled or terrified into silence, or apathy, in the face of evil.

The Holocaust Museum, more than other places, must marshal our courage, the will to resist evil, the determination to combat bigotry and racism. It must stand as an expression of our human capacity to care sufficiently about the stranger, not to tolerate in silence his impoverishment or persecution. The Museum must arouse our conscience.

When we say "Never again!" it must describe such a universal abhorrence of "ethnic cleansing" that no demagogue would ever suggest it as a motive for violence, at the risk of the world's unrelenting and immediate repudiation.

The Holocaust Museum must also speak to the Jewish people. It must arouse the increasingly diminished Jewish community to renew its Jewish commitments. To spend such money only to remember the Holocaust is a sin.

The Jewish community must experience the Holocaust Museum as a demanding summons to look upon the discipline of learning as a inescapable obligation of one's Jewish identity. The Museum must so capture the will of the Jewish community that Jewish family life is regenerated. The surge of divorce, the faddish pursuit of fun over sanctity, must be replaced by Jewish values, rescued from contemporary ostentation, materialism, and secularism. The historic Jewish passion for social justice, the imperative demand of Israel's prophets, must be fueled by the museum's portrayal of moral turpitude and injustice. Without a Jewish yearning for a world liberated from oppression, hunger, homelessness, the prophet's voice will not echo at the Holocaust Museum. And there will be silence once again. And Jewish survival will be irrelevant.

When a particular people has become irrelevant, we must universally quiver with fright. We are all connected. The loss of a people, no matter how small, is a universal catastrophe.

If the Holocaust Museum achieves these worthy purposes, then thank God for the dreamers, the visionaries, the contributors, the builders who have made such a place, such an experience, available to us. The Holocaust, inexplicable forever, must in memory give impetus for blessing through a humanity whose voice shall be heard, saying, in truth: "Never again!"

Murray Saltzman is rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

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