Holocaust Museum misses one horror

Jack L. Levin

September 01, 1993|By Jack L. Levin

AS AN American Jew who lost no immediate relatives in the Holocaust, but who tried in the 1930s -- without much success -- to offer haven and compassion to its victims, I experienced a particularly painful recollection during my recent visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

The museum recreates all but one horror of that terrible time.

Its exhibits scream that the world must never again allow millions of innocents to be systematically destroyed and that never again can a sane person pay any attention to a skinhead or airhead who says it never happened.

But for me the museum's most shattering impact was an exhibit that wasn't there. It wasn't there because it can never be reproduced: the massive, uncaring indifference of a species going about its business, turning away from what it knew was happening.

This cold, calloused apathy was not given a name until 30 years ago when, at the March on Washington, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress and former chief rabbi of Berlin, called it the "crime of silence," comparing it to the crime of racial injustice in the United States.

Hundreds of thousands are visiting the museum. It is heartening to note how many are young people learning for the first time about the hairy beast that lurks just beneath the skin of supposedly civilized human beings and what happens when the beast is turned loose.

These young people should know also of the willful blindness of those who turned away during the Holocaust. I was an unfashionably premature anti-Fascist in the 1930s. I remember the antagonism of friends toward one perceived as a trouble-making fellow-traveler and worse for opposing the "bulwarks against communism" -- Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito.

I remember a friend, whom I had asked for a small donation to defray expenses of our activities, berating me as a boat-rocker. "Stay out of it!" he said. "The Nazis and communists will destroy each other. Let them."

Those of us who arranged a pre-war protest rally at the foot of Broadway in front of the visiting Nazi destroyer Emden and its white-clad, pink-cheeked sailors, house guests of welcoming Baltimoreans, were reviled as inhospitable churls. Official and influential Baltimore gave Hitler's emissaries a royal welcome.

Mayor Howard W. Jackson, as host to the Emden's captain, Hans Bachman, made him at home by displaying the swastika flag in the mayor's office at City Hall. Maryland Gov. Harry W. Nice boarded the ship to extend greetings. Debutantes had their hands kissed by dashing Nazi officers and joined them in sipping champagne and Rhine wine.

Hitler was toasted by many Baltimore officials and dignitaries on his birthday, April 20. There were rousing choruses of "Happy Birthday, Dear Fuehrer."

When the ship's band finished playing "Deutschland uber alles," the arms and voices of 450 were raised in heiling Hitler.

He also received roaring ovations at the Emerson Hotel, where the pastor of Baltimore's Zion Lutheran Church led prayers, toasts, a lavish buffet for 225 guests and much heiling.

At the museum, I heard the recorded warnings of political and religious leaders of the '30s. I saw the headlines in some newspapers calling attention to the gathering storm; I even heard a passing reference to America's indifference.

It is impossible, however, to make silence interesting or exciting. How does a museum display the cruel irony of daily routines in German homes, factories, offices, movie theaters, stores, saloons and cabarets so near the death camps that they could be smelled, the brutality clearly witnessed and the cries of the tortured and dying distinctly heard by many of the good burghers who later pleaded total ignorance of the horrors in which they were silent partners?

If the German people's pretense of innocence and non-involvement is hard to disprove, if the howling approval of Hitler's rantings cannot be reproduced faithfully without bursting the eardrums, how can a museum exhibit convincingly the we-don't-give-a-damn attitude of the rest of the world?

Nevertheless, the crime of silence of good people in the face of monstrous evil, the tight restrictions on the admission of refugees, the rejection of children whose parents were pleading for a haven for them, the determination of isolationist Americans to be blind to the agonies of fellow humans -- all this, too, must never be forgotten. To all of this we must also vow: Never again!

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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