Reflections on the Holocaust Museum

April 26, 1995|By Donald Elliott

THE HOLOCAUST Museum in Washington is dedicated to the remembrance of that infamous period of human history when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis perpetrated unspeakable horrors, cruelties and injustices primarily on their Jewish brethren. It is a graphic representation of the worst things that presumably civilized people can do. It contains, among many other items, an actual box car that was used to transport prisoners to the death camps and part of a barracks that housed them before they were herded to their deaths. No one, I think, can fail to be moved by the great number of exhibits that remind us of a depth of human degradation that is a fact of history. It is real, it is poignant, and it is anguishing.

Why, then, did I, after a recent visit, come away with a feeling of disappointment, a feeling that something was missing? Of course, we must keep forever before us images of our past lest we forget and allow such things to happen again. But such things have happened again, and they continue to happen, and we, even in our anguish, seem powerless to prevent them. Is the museum a help to us in our vague aspirations for a more perfect humanity?

And, suddenly, I think I know the cause of my disappointment. The museum, with what I know are praise-worthy intentions, is, nonetheless, dedicated to hatred, to, in a sense, the very thing that it is at such great pains to depict as depraved and immoral. It is saying: Here is evil, here is something that must be immortalized in order for its viewers to be fired with a zeal to hate it and to be dedicated to the fighting of any resurgence of the evil it depicts. The museum is a monument to evil; it is at pains to show us the evil that existed in Nazi Germany for a time. And that is probably good, or, at least, necessary for all of us. We should be aware of what happened. But in another way, the emphasis is all wrong. The museum is calculated in some sense to make us hate the evil that was Hitler and to teach us, as I recently read somewhere, "the commitments which we can make to work against that which is evil."

And that, it seems to me, is somehow backward. The museum is totally unleavened by any human feeling or aspiration to good. It is a paean against evil. It is the kind of thing we do when we punish malefactors with the same evils we condemn them for. If you steal, the state will steal from you by imposing a fine on you. If you kill, the state will kill you. And who is to say that the evil the state or institution practices on you is any less bad than the evil you committed? St. Augustine, some 1,500 years ago, delivered himself, painfully, of a theory that held that evil did not exist, that all that existed was merely different degrees of good. One did not, then, fight evil as an existing entity. Rather, one concentrated on the good and on the doing of good. And there is nothing in the Holocaust Museum that even remotely suggests that idea. The thought is that if we are reminded of the evils of the Nazis, we will perforce resist their like in the future. But that is akin to Nancy Reagan's facile admonition to say "Just say no" drugs. It gives no idea of what to say "yes" to. It is mired in the notion that evil is something to be combatted, and it misses the fundamental and, in the end, enabling idea that a positive effort for the good makes evil impotent and, in a sense, nonexistent.

I was, nevertheless, much affected by my visit to the museum. But these reactions were, I am convinced, the normal ones of a person directly confronted by a palpable evil. What I missed were any notions of redemption, of a possibility for good, of a hope for a humanity less concerned with evil than it is with its aspirations to brotherhood, forgiveness and an understanding of what the term "humanity" really means.

Donald Elliott writes from Baltimore.

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