The Holocaust Museum as Sacred Place and Public Monument
In Eastern and Central Europe a vast Holocaust iconography exists: its lexicon
consists of the former concentration camps, memorials, unearthed and yet-to-be-unearthed
mass graves. In addition, the post-war generation lives with what the German
writer Michael Schneider calls the "Hamletesque sense of life", in which every
child fears or suspects that the kindly Christian-Democratic father or grandfather
before him was a very different person fifty years before.
This legacy ensures an encounter with the past,
and many national and personal choices in Germany are debated against the background
of the Holocaust. The high rate by which the young elect to do alternative service
to the military, the relatively liberal asylum laws, and the willingness to
recognize national and ethnic demands for autonomy are all legacies of the Holocaust.
In America, by contrast, it is not clear what the Holocaust means to society.
This is a country where every place is equal in that there is no center from
which associations are made; where hotel chains use the identical atriums, color
schemes, and menus for sites as diverse as Los Angeles, Dallas, Cleveland, New
Orleans or Florida; and where history is disembodied and reconstructed in "theme"
restaurants and parks.
Will Holocaust museums by themselves be rich enough lexicons to elicit memories
in the minds of Americans of the Holocaust one hundred years from now? Will
there be enough of them scattered throughout the United States to matter? I
do not believe so. It is very likely that the dozens of smaller museums and
resource centers that are not free-standing or financially independent will
eventually be dismantled when a Jewish community relocates to the suburbs or
beyond, or when budget cuts have to be made, leaving at the most three or four
Holocaust-specific institutions in the United States. The question is whether
these remaining institutions can serve as the vehicles for collective memory
about the Holocaust.
In pre-modern times, urban space was designed to convey religious and political
values, and collective memory was "encoded" in the artifacts and objects of
public space. In our age, by contrast, museums do not expect visitors to have
common responses to what is being presented; nor do they claim to present particular
points of view. Like the modern artists, they too were emancipated from history
and values. Museums self-consciously attempt to be value-free. Distinctions
are made between history (which is regarded as objective and contextualized)
and memory (which is regarded as subjective and ahistorical). Memory is considered
Holocaust museums in the United States, however, are paradoxical institutions.
They represent a strange mixture of history and memory. They are only built
by Jews, and so serve as a kind of "sacred space" where annual secular rites
of collective mourning are held. Unlike other institutions, Holocaust museums
have an iconography, but one that is unabashedly "Jewish": its monuments and
symbols are not transparent and accessible to everyone. They tell the story
of a particular people, and in the attempt to make that story unique, clash
with the principle of autonomous, value-free public institutions.
At the same time, to be successful, the Holocaust museum must be an institution
for a mass audience. A universal approach is required. This approach is not
only necessary to deflect the charge of parochialism, it makes good pedagogic
sense. History is understood when students find parallels to their own experience,
weave new connections, and find patterns in complexity.
Herein lies the paradox of what I have called elsewhere "the paradox of sacred
spaces and public access".
The more accessible the Holocaust museum, the
less "Jewish" it will be; conversely, the more "Jewish", the less accessible.
The more accessible the museum, the greater is the chance that the uniqueness
of the Holocaust will be lost; the more uniqueness is stressed, the greater
the chance that the Holocaust will be seen as irrelevant. Although the question
about the universality and the uniqueness of the Holocaust is still unresolved
in the academic literature, virtually every Holocaust museum has decided in
favor of a more parochial approach that stresses the event's uniqueness.
There is a greater force, however, that will continue to transform Holocaust
remembrance in America, namely, the changes in this country's demography. This
sociological reality seriously diminishes the relevance of the Holocaust because
schools are simply overwhelmed by the educational challenges and social and
cultural concerns that "new Americans" bring to society. This situation is compounded
by the fact that what is missing even in the best museums is not a matter of
any particular artifact or photo or architecture. Rather, the problem is that
we who are engaged in reflection and study of the Holocaust, have failed to
make the case for its relevance. It may already, I believe, be too late.
Demography and the Problem of Relevance
In the United States, the Holocaust serves no tangible function. As a junior
high school teacher once asked me during a public presentation: "Why should
I teach the Holocaust? Given the ethnic composition of my class (Latino, Black,
Asian-American), the Holocaust does not serve my social studies needs." These
are better served, he concluded, by a study of the genocide of Native Americans,
the slave trade, and so forth.
Given the demographic reality in Los Angeles as an example, his question was
not inappropriate. In 1991-92, the student population of the Los Angeles Unified
School District, the nation's second-largest school system consisted of 64.4%
Latinos, 14.8% Blacks, 13.1% Anglos, and 5.2% Asians. Further, the typical public
school teacher has to worry about very basic educational issues: forty-one percent
of students were designated as "limited English proficient." The drop-out rate
in grades 10-12 is about 15%. Currently (1997) the high school drop out rate
in Los Angeles is 150 per 1,000 children. Nationwide the rate is 90 per 1,000
Beyond the demographic reality, a broad reassessment of the disciplines which
began in the 1960s has had great impact on how we think about the social sciences.
Increasingly, critical subjects and topics are approached through specific gender
and ethnic frames of reference. The debate in American academic and educational
circles over Martin Bernal's Black Athena, subtitled "The Afroasiastic Roots
of Classical Civilization" encapsulates the issues surrounding ethnic approaches
to history. In a review in the New York Review of Books, the premier intellectual
journal in the United States, Emily Vermeule characterized Bernal's evidence
for the African roots of Egyptian and Greek civilization as "a gigantic chess
game without an opponent; the author places his pieces on the world board where
he wishes, not constrained by any rules. Would you like an Egyptian conquest
of Anatolia around 1900 BC, and especially of the epic town of Troy?....Would
you like the Scythians and South Russians to be black?"
Bernal marshals the arguments, but apparently
not the evidence, that uncovers the link. A somewhat more sympathetic reviewer,
Molly Myerowitz Levine, invokes the following cautionary note at the conclusion
of her essay in the American Historical Review: "Today--an ocean of reviews,
symposia, and speeches later--I still am not much smarter, but I am more afraid
and more cynical. Does Bernal's new paradigm for Greek prehistory synthesized
from disparate and varied strands of evidence represent a truer version of 'the
way things were'? Or is The Fabrication of Ancient Greece [Volume II of Black
Athena] itself the adroit fabrication of a skilled storyteller to be used for
still more fabrications? And is it too late to plead for all fabrications to
yield to a truer version of historical reality?"
Reverse ethnocentric education is not only a problem in discipline of history.
There are serious philosophers who argue for "female philosophy", claiming that
reason and objectivity--including the rules of logic--are "male" constructs.
And in many large urban school districts, "Afrocentric" science material is
being used in grade schools.
Curricular Approaches to the Holocaust
I want to briefly turn to the curricula which is used to teach the Holocaust
because I believe that current approaches are deeply problematic and do not
encourage "mainstreaming" the event into the social sciences. Generally, Holocaust
curricula are either purely historical or psychological. The psychological approach
is couched as "issues associated with the exploration of values". In this approach,
the "bottom line" is the need for "tolerance". Advocates postulate that people
react negatively to others because individuals do not see the commonality or
humanity of all human beings. For these educators, the solution is a kind of
"working through" the intolerance by role playing activities, simulation, and
psycho-drama (what Elaine Scarry calls "generous imaginings").
The goal is to get the student to face and feel
intolerance as a means of seeing the painful consequences and absurdity of intolerance.
This technique is exemplified by a popular museum in Los Angeles, and in the
much-utilized educational film, The Wave, a dramatization of an incident in
a high school class in northern California where the students literally took
on fascist identities while role playing for a class on the Third Reich. The
psychological approach, however, does not deal with questions of ideology and
other forces that shape character, motivate people, and inform public policy.
The purely historical approach, sometimes labeled "empirical", focuses on telling
the story well. The best are comprehensive, a blend of social, political and
economic history. These curricula draw heavily on the scholarly works and follow
some version of the social scientific method.
Both approaches generally do not draw analogies from history that allow the
student to confront the "hard" moral and social issues in contemporary society.
The historical is detached from values and public policy thinking; the psychological
or values approach is divorced from history. Curricula and Holocaust museums
created in the Jewish community are particularly guilty of this separation.
"Memory" became an end in itself and does not bring the past and present together.
Memory/Remembrance must always be in the service of self-awareness, building
the ethical community, even planning concrete programs of action.
The Politics of History
In order for an historical event to take a permanent place in history textbooks,
it must be accepted by both the professional and general audience as authorized,
or in Thomas Kuhn's phrase, "normative". The authorized version in any particular
discipline, is the example one looks to for explanations, both empirical and
theoretical. It is from the historical events that have been accepted as normative
that we learn the lessons of history.
How a historical event is "packaged" and then ultimately "bought" as normative
or authorized is a complex and fascinating story. The study of history brings
a passion not found in other disciplines. In a discipline where everything is
interpretation it is not surprising that governments, ethnic and national groups
are sensitive to how their story is portrayed in fiction, reportage, and scholarship.
They sometimes are willing to use any weapon to preserve the authorized version--censorship,
lies, even violence. History, it has been said, is politics projected into the
past. It is easy to claim that we learn from history. But if history is the
politics of special pleading, can its study ever be a useful past?
I was witness to the politics of history. In September 1985 the governor of
California signed into law Assembly Bill 1273 which directed the State Board
of Education to develop a Model Curriculum on Human Rights and Genocide. I was
asked to be a member of the Curriculum Advisory Committee. For the next two
years, the California State Board of Education was subjected to intense lobbying
from ethnic communities and special interest groups that wanted their versions
of genocidal history canonized in the state's new Model Curriculum.
The lobbying proved too intense for the professional staff. The original draft
consisted of introductory essays on the Model Curriculum's objectives, a rationale,
a summary of the types of resources available to educators, and sample course
standards on the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Because of the pressure
from these outside groups, the original writing group was disbanded, and the
State Board of Education took the matter directly in hand, becoming the primary
focus of public lobbying. The staff, including the Advisory Board became irrelevant
to the process.
At a public input session in Ontario, California in August 1987 sixty-three
scheduled speakers, as varied as representatives from the Gay Lesbians Youth
Advisory Council, the Catholic League for Religious Civil Right, the Anti-Defamation
League of B'nai B'rith, the Estonian Central Committee of the United States,
the Arab community and, most prominently, leaders from the Turkish and Polish
community addressed the members of the State Board of Education. The speakers
were direct and forceful. "You must not approve this curriculum," said the representative
from the Polish-American Congress. "Why? Because it is missing a recent and
major episode of genocide. Some have called it the 'forgotten' holocaust: namely,
the Nazi murder of approximately 3 million Poles during World War Two." The
Turkish community was particularly aggressive in fighting the Model Curriculum,
and placed ads in newspapers calling the proposed document a "hate-provoking
propaganda that fuels terrorism... and social ostracism."
In this episode, where everyone was a victim, and victims jousted with other
victims, moral authority was liberally employed. "The process of untarnishing
our ethnic image and fighting for the restoration of the good name of Poland
and the Polish people is taking place, "editorialized Alert, the newspaper of
the Polish American Congress. "We cannot allow the people who hate us to dictate
history and holocaust studies in public schools."
In this statement the author portrays Poles
as the victims of history now victimized by other victims, the Jews. For many
Poles, it is simply historical bad luck that Jews suffered at the hands of the
Nazis on Polish soil; Polish suffering has consequently been overshadowed by
the genocide of Polish Jewry. Worse, some Jews and Jewish organizations consciously
ally the Nazi and Poles as perpetrators. Thus, according to this view, the Poles
are twice victimized: by the Nazis and by the former victims, the Jews.
If a group can incorporate the term "genocide" into its history or cause, it
can invoke the moral authority attached to the experience. At the Ontario meeting,
for example, a representative from the Pro-Life Nurses Association stated that
"abortion is genocide in our country." In this case, not only is the fetus given
moral authority as a potential victim, but the historical and sociological meaning
of the term "genocide" is altogether lost. A more recent example of how values,
academics and politics co-exist in education is the debate around the National
History Standards prepared by the National Center for History in the Schools
at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Given the demographic factors and their challenges, the new approaches to the
social sciences, and the "balkanization of genocide" do Holocaust educators
and museum professionals have any chance of arguing the inclusion of Holocaust
units in the state curriculum? Can textbook publishers be persuaded that the
Holocaust addresses the needs of these students? Is it even possible that the
Holocaust will obscenely be labeled a "Eurocentric" event, more stories about
"white dead Europeans"?
Obsession as Praxis
In his book Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman expresses his outrage
at the inability of the social sciences to say anything new about the Holocaust
or extract anything useful. For Bauman, the Holocaust is nothing less than "the
test of modernity", and offers the social sciences the opportunity "of assimilating
the lessons of the Holocaust in the mainstream of our theory of modernity and
of the civilizing process and its effects."
His sentiments echo those of a now little-read
sociologist, Robert Lynd, who argued passionately in a book written with the
events in Germany as the background, that the social scientist (and I would
add the historian and educator) is not a seismologist observing and describing
a volcano. "The responsibility," Lynd wrote, "is to keep everlastingly challenging
the present with the question: But what is it that we human beings want, and
what things would have to be done, in what ways and in what sequence, in order
to change the present so as to achieve it?"
It has been said that Jews and Germans, perhaps others, are obsessed with the
Holocaust. I do not think that they are. A real obsession with the Holocaust
would constantly interfere with--and so organize--our experiences. It does not.
We compartmentalize. Thus, Social Education, the official journal of the National
Council for the Social Sciences, devotes its October 1995 issue to "Teaching
About the Holocaust", and three months later, its January 1996 issue on "Teaching
Controversial Issues" fails to link any "hot" issue to the Holocaust or to any
other historical event. In this example, the Holocaust is "history"; the contemporary
questions are the "issues". We have the examined past, but do we have a useable
We discuss the Holocaust but do not contribute to a plan of action to oppose
mass murder, ethnocide, expulsions, and deportations. We discuss racial hygiene
and the role of doctors in the 1930s and 40s but do not raise key questions
about medicine and medical policy itself, or note that physician-assisted suicide
and voluntary active euthanasia--recently permitted by American courts--raise
anew questions that are ultimately eugenic. We are outraged by the selective
quotas against Eastern and Central Europeans immigrants in the 1920s while Congress
seals American boarders along the Southwest, and the United States interdicts
and forcibly returns Haitian refugees. We discuss the role of bystanders yet
we are bystanders in relation to Rwanda, Cambodia, and Bosnia. We have the examined
past, but do we have a useable past?
The museum trustee and designer, the school board and the curriculum writer
must be fearless in utilizing the Holocaust to engage people in contemporary
moral and social values. The Holocaust has something to say about law, medicine,
and technology, the efficacy of international law, the treatment of refugees,
among other topics. This goal is difficult to achieve, in part because there
are many people who insist on the uniqueness of the Holocaust to the exclusion
of comparative study and universalizing, and because of the demographic and
contemporary approaches to the disciplines that I have mentioned. Perhaps it
will take another generation before the correct balance is achieved. If we cannot
make history a useful past, employing it in the service of constructing the
ethical community, people will continue to ask, as Robert Lynd did in the title
of his book published in 1939: knowledge for what?
Michael Schneider, “Fathers and Sons,
Retrospectively: The Damaged Relationship Between Two Generations,” New
German Critique No. 31, Winter 1983.
Michael Nutkiewicz, "Holocaust Museums:
The Paradox of Sacred Spaces and Public Access," The Forum (North
American Jewish Forum) Summer/Autumn 1993, pp. 18-20.
American Historical Review,
Vol. 97, No. 2 (April 1992), p. 460.
New York Review of Books,
Vol. 39, No. 6 (March 26, 1992), p. 40.
Elaine Scarry, “The Difficulty of
Imagining Other People, in Martha Nussbaum (ed.), For Love of Country.
Debating the Limits of Patriotism (Beacon Press: Boston, 1996), pp.
Unfortunately, I have lost the newsletter
from which this quote is taken. However,
a recent statement on the web site of the Polish-American Congress echoes
these sentiments: There have been numerous comments in the past from Jewish
leaders about the need for "sensitivity," yet they feel no need for that
quality on their part. Neither the devotion of Poles to church and cross,
nor the weighty symbolism of the papal cross at Auschwitz appear worthy
of their consideration. Those who believed the removal of Christian symbols
from the Auschwitz site would satisfy Jewish demands have now uncovered
the insatiable appetite of the historical revisionists. The cross, the Pope,
Polish martyrdom are mere objects to be buried and forgotten to the self-possessed
extremists. The reader can read this statement at www.polamcon.com.
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and
the Holocaust (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1991), p. XIV.
Robert Lynd, Knowledge for What?
The Place of Social Sciences in American Culture (Grove Press, Inc.:
New York, 1964), p. 250.