I actually have work to do, but I saw this ad on the El tonight, and I decided that I had to write about it now, before I forgot how I felt about it, or what I was thinking about on the train.
This isn’t exactly what I saw on the train; I took this one from the website of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. But I sat on the train for forty minutes trying to make sense of the idea that apparently an old woman saving a kid from a violent mob in Chicago is the same as the story it’s being compared to on the website, of an old woman helping two Jewish children to escape the liquidation of the Sokolow ghetto.
It made me think of this article, about the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which is as fascinating to me now as it was when I first read it, as is this one. I tend to be in agreement with Edward Rothstein, who wrote the second article, that the idea of making the Holocaust into a prototype for general intolerance is ludicrous. I don’t think it’s possible to “relate” to the Holocaust–not to the victims, not to the heroes (who, the advertising tells us, were people just like us), not to the survivors. To my mind, it isn’t possible to “relate” to genocide, because genocide is exceptional.
What makes me think that we can’t relate to the Holocaust is the fact that we’re still trying. World War II ended in 1945. It’s 2012, and we still don’t know how to talk about it. We still can’t process it. We can try to lump it together with other genocides, we can try to compare it to other atrocities or the current bullying situation, but I’m inclined to think that most approaches manage to distance us even more.
I criticized the Mémorial de la Shoah for including so much information, mostly untranslated, that the museum was difficult to navigate–that is, the ideas and facts of the Holocaust were difficult to navigate. And yet it didn’t even scratch the surface. I took a class my senior year of high school on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and despite all of our reading and film-watching and paper-writing and concert-giving at the end of the semester, nobody was any closer to understanding everything about it than we were at the start. That’s why I’m amazed when I read about things like museums of “genocide.” Imagine the short-shrift these atrocities of enormous scope and magnitude would get if they were all packed into one museum. Each one is unique, and to try to make them equivalent for easier understanding is to diminish their significance. When we studied the Holocaust in high school, we barely touched on the Armenian genocide or Stalin’s Purges and systematic murder of his own people–only insofar as they involved the same continent, more or less. And what about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, what about Darfur? As one of those articles points out, the history of a single genocide is so complex and deep that you have to gloss over it if you’re going to compare it to others.
Part of me wonders if I feel so strongly about this because I am Jewish and the Holocaust is my history. And the answer is yes, to a certain extent. I think that ad campaign is pure arrogance on the part of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Actually, I think a commercial ad campaign for a Holocaust museum is in kind of bad taste. I shudder to imagine the meeting where somebody said, people aren’t coming to our Holocaust Museum because it’s too depressing and unrelatable, but you know what we could do? We could make it more about intolerance all over the world and right here in Chicago, and then maybe people would be interested. Are we trying to make the Holocaust relevant? Or maybe the better question is, is the Holocaust really no longer relevant? Is there no longer anything to be learned or gleaned from the murder of six million Jews? Why isn’t it okay to admit that we don’t understand? I believe that a successful Holocaust museum is one that unsettles you and makes you feel something that you can’t find an equivalent for in your own life, that you can’t relate to.
I wonder if it’s a product of the times we live in, the Internet age. Why bother to go to a museum if you can get all the same information on the internet? When all of the facts are available at the touch of a button, at the click of a mouse, do museums feel more of an obligation to help us understand what we’ve already learned? Do we need a ten-word answer for genocide? Are we going to reduce it to a definition to be memorized, because we no longer have the attention span or patience to read the small print? Does the Holocaust really need a sexy ad campaign to get people to think about it?
I don’t know, and I could go on forever, except that I really do have work to do before I go to bed, or I will not be a happy camper in the morning.
Goodnight, dear void.