In appreciation of the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, which I toured in November.
You do not go into any Holocaust exhibit looking for a good time.
You go to look, period.
How is such a thing put together? What is to see or learn about mass murder that has not been shown already in the most starkly documentary or elaborately cinematic way, and everything in between, over and over?
Take a peek, from between your fingers.
Read the text. The sanely, succinctly written text. Scan the enlarged black and white photos (so many of them) for the captions. The captions are safe. Now, look at the photos. Old photos, posed mostly, some playful. People from the past. Their extraordinary faces.
Back to captions. Back to faces, places.
You go to look. Now you are looking for names you recognize, of locations, relations. There could be clues to who you are. Look for them in the beautiful old photos, where every detail is distinct. Whoever these people are, they are akin, and they are surrounding you, peopling from knee-height to above your head the close maze of panels. This is how we lived back then, in our fruitfulness, whether orthodox or secular, with our big families in small rooms spilling into shtetl and city streets. Copious life. Copious talent. Copious variety.
It goes on and on, this exhibit. Like the flow of time, politics, self-awareness, cultural expansion. In the wide middle between before and after, you will have more trouble identifying your kin. They are at once outcasts and all mixed up with all the other families of these places, and the places they will flee to, or pour in from, and the people who will help or turn their backs. You and your ancestors (and all are here, whether victims, oppressors, onlookers or redeemers) have become part of history, indistinct beyond your most prominent allegiance, a representative piece on a game board.
An hour later, coming to the climax, or, better stated, the low point of this “quick look around” you will be grateful if rain batters the roof above, making you forgetful of the sun. We are in hell. Descending to hell. But only tourists, remember. We will come out okay. Another turn… another turn… another turn… another…
Turns out there is a long way still to go. But these later panels we can maneuver more efficiently. The images are the ones we dreaded, the ones we of a certain age have known forever, iconic. The narrative as well. (The previous “how we got to this point” story, in the middle section, is highly instructive and should be reviewed even if you think you know it.)
Here is the pit. You will know not to look for familiar faces or names here, you do not want to find them here. You will not see yourself in them if you do. Shaven, starved, denuded, murdered and desecrated – do not even dream of finding yourself here. Weep for all of humanity, that we could come so low. Then shuffle onward to war and liberation, to an evil vanquished and the immediate, undeniable victory of the world over a monstrous idea, until the exhibit exit beckons, with airy, brightly lit foyer beyond, and the rain (if you’re lucky) still beating down to solemnly gray the view through the glass doors. Shuffle along, shuffle along.
How hard it has been, all this time, to come into such a place, to descend and emerge again. You knew you would find hell at the bottom. And you knew that humanity could only ever come halfway back from that, after unleashing such violence and hatred and unreconcilable destruction. So why go, you thought. This is why:
It is not a penance. It is not a duty (some may feel it so). It is an opportunity to reflect on history, to pay one’s respects to our predecessors, and to come at last to a genuine feeling of victory. Not for a race or a nation or a principle. For yourself. You exist. Against all odds, and regardless of whatever piece of this history attaches to you, you are alive. It is a miracle. Rejoice.
Rejoice but do not rest. It is up to us to make sure such horrors never happen again, to anyone, and certainly not in our names. I am the granddaughter of immigrants who were escaping poverty, repression and slaughter in Europe. People like them are desperately looking for safe haven this very moment. They have not only been denied it, they have been separated from their children/parents, insulted, degraded, and now tear-gassed. What next, I wonder? We do not need a wall on our U.S.-Mexico border, we need a Statue of Liberty.