Sunday, June 19, 2005


June 19, 2005

The lady that greets you at the elevator says that it would take two full days of your concentrated attention to ingest this whole place, so pay attention. “Never Again,” is the catchphrase here, and the importance of remembering is always at the forefront. It’s a dark place too, built with bare steel and copper-colored beams. There are no distractions. There’s nothing in Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum to divert the visitor from his objective… Behold before you-- a stately but humanistic monument to the most focused bloodletting in known history.

Sitting to write this small, and perhaps ill-conceived account of my visit to the museum I am struck with how indistinctly I’ve measured my visit. I feel dirty writing about it, about my lack of feeling. Growing up in a Jewish community, the Holocaust Museum is the setting for many tales of cultural awakening and soulful reconnection to past generations. It is a monument not just to the millions killed by the Third Reich, but a reminder of the countless other less successful attempts to wipe out the Jewish race. It is, finally, a defiant symbol to Jews across the world of hatred and tragedy defeated.

But when I walked through the building itself-- starting at the top, third floor on down-- and passed by accounts of the early years of Nazi Germany, then into a room where home videos showed shattered concentration camp prisoners, triumph was the last thing coursing through my body. Instead, I only felt a little shame.

Let me explain with a sports analogy.

The Detroit Pistons won two NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. But the road to basketball’s so-called Promised Land was not easy for Detroit, and they suffered numerous gut-wrenching defeats on their way to glory. Defeat came in the seventh and deciding game of the ‘88 Finals against Los Angeles when A.C. Green’s running hook shot extended the Lakers lead with time winding down. As the ball fell through the cylinder, crazed Los Angelinos stormed their home court in rabid celebration of the team’s imminent victory. The referees, overwhelmed by the mob, could do nothing to provide the visiting Pistons with the three seconds, and the opportunity to tie, that the game clock indicated they were owed. The Lakers were crowned Champions once again, and the losing club had nothing to do except fly home. To Detroit.

That game, and even much of the season that preceded it, has often, in the past 10 or 15 years, been the subject of interviews conducted with Pistons stars Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas. But it is not hard-hearted sportscasters or abrasive writers who can be counted on to broach the topic. It is, and with an almost bizarre consistency, the players who like to talk about the game. Isiah Thomas, on numerous occasions, has said that in the off-season that preceded the 1989 basketball season, one in which his team would finally prevail, he watched tape of the past season’s last game over and over again. He wanted to make sure, he says, that such a thing could never happen again. It wasn’t the madness of the final moments that tormented Isiah, but the fact that he allowed his team into a situation where such a disastrous outcome was possible.

“Unfortunate, but necessary,” a Pistons fan might say today as he casually glances over a replay of the ‘88 game. He is able to watch with a smile only because he knows that in the following years his team would correct the mistakes of ‘88 and move on to a brighter, glorious future.

And so I am today, the human, the Jew, in place of the Piston fan, left to look over the relics of a most crushing defeat. But for humanity, unlike the Detroit basketball supporter, there has been no redemption. You can be confident Isiah would be reluctant to bring up the ’88 failure if it hadn’t been for subsequent successes. If the Pistons had gone on to lose in Los Angeles again and then in Portland there would be no one so bold as to say the ’88 season was the most important, the “building block” and the “rite of passage.” There would be no façade of elegance built to surround the pain, because no greater good could be called its offspring. It would have been just another sad episode in a prolonged tale of human suffering. Much like the Holocaust.

So that’s it, my grandmother, somewhere, is shivering. I’ve compared the Holocaust to the Pistons. And I’m a Nets fan. My point though, as I machete my way through this thick narrative brush, is not to demean the importance or criminal insanity of the Nazi’s Final Solution, but to point out the disingenuous shadow that looms over the monument built, supposedly, with the purpose of guaranteeing that such a horror should happen Never Again.

The hypocrisy poisons the air on all three floors. What is gained in beholding these images, some 60 years old, when similar situations are in play today, across the globe as the Janjaweed sweep through the Sudan? Or consider the deafening silence of the “civilized world” as 800,000 Rwandans were killed by their own countrymen in 1994. Was it was the same President Clinton, and I draw from the startling juxtaposition offered by Peter Maass in "Love thy Neighbor," who gave the speech now tatooed on the wall of the building while playing diplomatic hopscotch with Milosevic and his crazed Serbian death squads?

It’s a sordid mess of guilt and frustration at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, and in that vein the building offers a more striking monument than most would like to imagine. The museum, in its material impotence, speaks to a generation that thought the dark days were behind, scattered in equal parts between the dense woods of Poland and our own Deep South. But more than ten years after President Clinton took the voice of his mentor and promised the youth that something better was at hand if only we worked hard and “remembered,” it is clear that little has changed, just the names and places. Bergen-Belsen is Srebrenica. Srebrenica is Darfur is Baghdad is Lower Manhattan.


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