The things that happen in real life

Linda DeMers Hummel

May 21, 1993|By Linda DeMers Hummel

THE assignment was an essay by Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American writer. Her subject: the desecration of her ancestors' graves by the American government.

"Nothing like another victimization story," one of my students said quietly. Others shook their heads in resignation. They are tired of hearing other people's sad stories. They want everyone to "get over it."

Within days of my students telling me they're weary of whining, the Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington. I wondered how many other Americans, those much older than my students, those who have lived through 40 years of hearing about the death camps, are tired of these stories, too. This newest museum certainly doesn't fit with my view of Washington as a fun place -- the Smithsonian brimming with exhibits my kids love, the uplifting feeling of standing at Lincoln's feet and the excitement of getting to the top of the Washington Monument.

Instead, the Holocaust Museum seeks to grab us by the neck and hold us still and horrified, until we have taken the grisly details into our nostrils and then our hearts, where they stay. It is an unlikely place to find a person like me, someone not drawn to depravity. Not a big fan of Geraldo, I neither read the tabloids nor muse about David Koresh's life and death. And, as the adult child of white Protestant parents who were not abusers, alcoholics or cross dressers, I am the victim of nothing. So this is not my fight.

Whenever there is talk of the Holocaust being forgotten or subjected to revisionist history, neo-Nazis and other hate groups are always blamed.

Yet, I can't help thinking it is people like me who pose the greater risk. People like me, who claim the pictures of the Holocaust are too painful to view. People like me, who acknowledge that it happened exactly as it did, but to someone else's family.

Because the truth is unbearable, it becomes acceptable to let it sift through our fingers. That's why it can't be enough to tell victims to "get over it." Not to have the details is to keep atrocities in abstract, to believe they didn't happen that way.

Or worse, that they didn't happen at all.

My daughter taught me that when she was 5. We were watching a television program about colonial America, and in one scene, a slave mother was being sold away from her child, a little girl just about my daughter's age. I considered turning it off, thinking it was too sad for her at her tender age, but I did not.

It was wrenching. The mother pleaded with the master, the master laughing, the child terrified. When it was over, my daughter turned and asked, "Did things like that happen in real life?"

"Yes," I said.

She thought for a second or two, and then as though she had come up with an answer that made sense, she said, "Well, I don't think they really did."

She is 10 now. When she is 12 or so, we'll take her to 6 Washington to see another truth.

One so sad she won't be able to fathom that it happened in real life, which is exactly why she must see it.

Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.

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