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Do Holocaust Museums Make Us Better People?

History: As America increasingly bears witness to the horror, critics say such institutions do little good here.

December 11, 1997|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A vendor just off the National Mall hands Celia Barnes a bag of potato chips and points down 14th Street. "It's that way to the Holocaust," he says, directing the vacationing teacher to a limestone museum two blocks away.

Having just exhausted herself at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, the most popular tourist attraction in the city (and the world), Barnes is en route to the Vietnam Memorial, the 11th most popular site here. But first she has a ticket for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, open five years now and already No. 7 on the list.

About 9 million people--more than the number of Jews killed by Nazis in Europe 50 years ago--have coursed their way through the Holocaust exhibits, through a detailed narration of the worst moment in Jewish history in 2,000 years, past piles of human hair and other relics of moral chaos.

The museum speaks eloquently for itself--of indifference, racism, genocide, heroism, survival. But the people who visit, and what they bring home with them, are another story.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 17, 1997 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Holocaust museums--Discussing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, professor Peter Novick said that making the Holocaust a benchmark of atrocity "can as easily trivialize crimes of lesser magnitude." He also said that Holocaust museums make sense in Germany, Israel "and occupied countries," more so than in the United States. These remarks were misquoted in a story that ran Dec. 11 in Life & Style.

Many are neither survivors nor scholars. More than 85% are--like Barnes--not even Jewish. They also are relatively young. Two-thirds are 18 to 44 years old, which makes them too young to recall the events of 1933-1945, though old enough to understand how horrific they were.

"I knew about the Holocaust from school and the movies, but really I had no idea," says Barnes, 28, as she leaves the museum, jacket hanging off her, sneakers untied. She is, she says, emotionally "spent." Instead of heading to the Vietnam Memorial, she returns to her hotel to nap, to retreat from her overwhelming afternoon.

A few days after her four-hour visit to the museum, it is still on her mind. The Holocaust has become a prism through which she tries to see her daily life.

"I'm confused," she says. "This is not part of my life. But . . . I thought a lot about bystanders, the Germans who didn't stop it. Why didn't they?" She wonders if, back in her tiny hometown in the far reaches of New England, she would be alert to human disaster around the corner. "Would I notice if something awful was creeping up?"

In its own quarterly surveys of visitors, the Holocaust Memorial has learned that most people, like Barnes, have an "extremely meaningful experience" there. According to these surveys, by popular political pollster Peter Hart, most people come away bemoaning man's intolerance and hoping it will end. They are also impressed with the "enormity of the event" and they feel the museum portrays it objectively. One consultant calls the survey results "comparable to a rave review"--creepy though a "rave review" of the Holocaust may sound.

The museum visitors--75% of whom are college educated and earning more than $50,000 a year--don't want something like the Holocaust to happen again but think it could, and will, and in fact is happening. They leave thinking about Rwanda, Bosnia and acts of inhumanity in China.

But the museum carefully avoids making comparisons to other genocides in history. Rather, it encourages people to reflect upon the "moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy."

Critics of the museum say if its message were as powerful as it should be, visitors might throw down their cameras and souvenirs and head for the White House gates to force President Clinton and the whole government to stop genocide around the world.

Indeed, with all the talk of the Holocaust--which has become quite the hot topic in recent years--there are questions about where all the talk leads.

A half century after the fact, the Holocaust is in the press more than it was during all 12 years of the Final Solution, according to a Harvard University study by author James Carroll. Between stories about Swiss banks, plundered artwork, Madeleine Albright's recently discovered Jewish roots and Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners," the Holocaust is finally persistent front page news.

As we approach the end of the 20th century, Carroll says, there is a need to face the truth and to ask "unsettling questions." Indeed, America is increasingly bearing witness--on its National Mall and elsewhere--to an event that happened in Europe. There are 80 to 100 Holocaust centers in this country including major museums in Los Angeles, New York and Texas. "Schindler's List" set a U.S. television record with 65 million viewers; new books, other movies, and scholarly studies keep streaming out, maintaining the Holocaust as a yardstick of oppression and atrocity.

Peter Novick, a history professor at the University of Chicago who is writing a book on the "uses" of the Holocaust in American culture over the past 50 years, takes a pretty dim view of Holocaust memorials and museums.

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