“Hate is the enemy. But so is time,” reads the back cover of the evening’s program. “In five years, less than 0.01% (one in 10,000) of World War II veterans will be alive, and the youngest Holocaust survivor will be 79.”
To paraphrase Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton, when those who have lived extraordinary experiences pass, who tells their story?
Lin Manuel Miranda has preserved Hamilton’s story for posterity, to great fanfare and acclaim. Meanwhile, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, since its opening in 1993, has preserved the voices of the dead, amplified the voices of survivors, and ensured that those responsible will forever be held to account — with the hope of rousing something less transitory than applause.
For Naomi Kikoler, the acting director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and keynote speaker at this year’s “What You Do Matters” dinner, the work is not about adulation or roses at the feet. It’s about, as Kikoler told a nearly full Crystal Tea Room, “… making sure that, for future generations, ‘Never Again’ is not just empty rhetoric … that it actually does mean something.”
The annual fundraiser is a necessity. Federal support for the Holocaust Museum is down, and this year the museum’s fundraising initiative boasts a lofty goal of $1 billion.
Andres L. Arbil, director of the museum’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, said that it’s during times like these that the museum is most valuable.
“With such a loss of public trust in institutions — Congress, media and others — museums continue to be places of objectivity,” Arbil said. “We’re a place where people of different views and ideologies feel they can gather to have difficult conversations.”
Two museum exhibits, one forthcoming and the other underway, aim to deconstruct long-held beliefs and assumptions: one about what the face of evil looks like and another about how much average Americans knew about the Holocaust as it was happening.
The first will showcase a collection of photographs donated by the family of the deputy Nazi commandant at Sobibor, a camp with the notoriety of being one of the few built solely for exterminating Jews. Among the collection are the only known photographs to depict what the camp looked like and how it might have operated.
These photographs could prove particularly illuminating, since after an armed Jewish uprising in 1943, the Nazis demolished the camp and planted trees over the site.
Moreover, these pictures were taken by the Nazis themselves, presenting an opportunity to gain an even better understanding of what “the banality of evil” actually looked like.
The second, “History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust,” sent the call out to citizen sleuths and amateur historians to scour the archives of their local papers. The goal? To ascertain how much coverage the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews was receiving in publications here at home.
For decades, the unverified gospel was that few newspapers covered what was taking place, so people just didn’t know. Many at the museum hypothesized that this prevailing narrative was a false one. Still, no one knew what was actually out there. And they didn’t know how enthusiastic the public would be to collaborate.
So how enthusiastic was the response?
“Overwhelming,” Abril reported. And the findings? “Overwhelmingly one-sided.” Reports of large-scale Jewish suffering at Nazi hands were published in papers in every state, from large publications to small, religious to secular. Problem was, the stories were buried in less-than-prime sections of the paper; they were lost among all the wartime stories competing for readers’ attention.
In the evening’s keynote address, Kikoler spoke of the work she’s done, under museum auspices, to bring awareness to the Rohingya refugee crisis (in Myanmar) and the plight of civilians in Idlib, a town in northwestern Syria.
Said Arbil of History Unfolded’s aims: “It’s not to excuse but rather to understand the reality of what people saw versus what they understood … and maybe to offer us today some insight about the gaps between information we may have and our inability, or perhaps our unwillingness, to process it into a response.”
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