Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Holocaust Museum

"Did you have fun today?"

Such an awkward question to be asked after spending several hours at The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
"Hmm, I can't say I had fun, but it was amazing." That's the best I could do. The only thing that struck me as more odd was watching a lobby full of waiting visitors snack away, odder even than the fine cafeteria attached. Good food and the Holocaust - not usually two things you would connect.

The museum itself is a marvel and mostly avoids a real problem of presenting the horror of The Nazi Final Solution. The more graphic, the more gory the pictures, or the movies, the less real it seems. In today's world, where there are five, count 'em, five Saw movies, people are not particularly shocked by dismemberment.

The cardinal rule of persecution is, first and foremost, dehumanization. Making a group into "the other" allows for acceptance of abominable behavior. The Nazis knew their stuff, boy. Removing citizenship, disallowing mixed marriage, ghettoization, all served to make the Jews something different, not like regular volk. By the time they were through, the application of a puny cloth patch with a Star of David was all that was needed to signal that a Jew was fair game.

Speaking of games, a temporary exhibit called State of Deception is on display in the basement. It shows how methodical, and how thorough, the Nazis were in their depiction of the Jew they loathed. The posters, like Soviet posters of the era, are, dare I say, remarkable works of art. Such skill in the service of such evil is, in itself, a reality altering juxtaposition. Juden Raus (Jews Out) was, for me, the most unbelievable artifact on display. It's a damn board game! Imagine the corrupt mind that thought of that.

Where the museum shines is in its re-humanizing of the victims. At one point, after you've walked through the systematic destruction of the Jewish self, a tower of photos stretches above and below floor level. Pictures of families, portraits, casual shots, all taken from a Jewish enclave Ejszyszki, in Lithuania, brings the people back to life. It's a jolt. Later, one encounters those same photos with the new knowledge of their total destruction, including that of the photographers themselves.

Did I have fun? No. Did the tragedy of the Holocaust and the understanding of how it happened and how it was allowed to continue hit home? You bet.

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