Monday, February 22, 2010
The Holocaust Museum: Illuminating the Future with the Past
Walking over the threshold of the Room of Remembrance in the Holocaust Museum, I could feel my muscles relax. I hadn’t noticed how tense I had become experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust—my arms tightly clasped close to my chin as if praying and my upper lip curled up in a snarl of disgust while tears clouded my vision. But this room, this hall, calmed my stance into a careful submission to its beauty.
An oppressive darkness, fitting for the death and destruction, gave way to this bright light at the end of the tunnel. One was almost claustrophobic from those previous rooms, but this room was open like going to the country after spending a lot of time in the city. It was a breath of fresh air after suffocating from sympathetic pain. It was silent like the rest of the museum, but this silence was not out of sadness, but out of awe. Where pain and fear were prevalent throughout the other floors, I saw hope.
Seeing the chick pea colored marble and pavement colored limestone, one would expect to feel cold. Instead, warmth coursed through my body from my heart. Against five of the six walls, hundreds of candles were lit in remembrance of those lost. An overwhelming scent of burning wax accompanied them. Directly across from the entrance in the inset brick colored granite floor of the room’s center, an altar burned the biggest flame out of a bowl. This was not like the fire used in the crematoriums used in the Holocaust, but it was more like the fire of the burning bush that God used to speak to Moses through. It was a holy fire, sent up as an offering to God and to the people killed in the Holocaust.
Dachau, Belzec, Ravensbrück, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen. Light streamed in through the hexagonal skylight to illuminate the words on the walls. Behind the columns and candles, the dark limestone walls had the names of places where Jews were killed engraved into them. Above the columns, the walls stretched higher, containing words of hope and memory. A verse from Deuteronomy chapter four verse nine was displayed on the wall behind the alter.
Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children, and your children’s children.
This pointed my thoughts upward through the windows above it to the open sky. It was a clear, blue sky with warm, bright sunbeams permeating through it.
Beyond that sky, invisible to the naked eye, was the universe—stars, planets, moons all orbiting in space in perfect synchronization—so vast in all of its entirety. All of these things God created to point us to Him, yet He chose to love us and maintain a relationship with us. I think of another passage from Deuteronomy, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength” (6:5). It’s one quoted by Jesus as the greatest commandment in Matthew chapter Twenty-two. He quotes another with it from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18).
The Nazis surely didn’t love their neighbors, the Jews. They even conditioned the friends and neighbors of Jews to hate them. In Operation Gomorrah, despite the continuous stream of dangerous bombings in Hamburg, the girl and her mother were denied shelter from their neighbors. I personally could not understand what would keep these people from sheltering their neighbors in that time of crisis. Recalling the schoolbooks that depicted Jews as evil creatures on display in the first room of the museum, I surface with an answer. A misconception brought about by the brainwashing Hitler enforced, along with the fear he produced in his subjects, could be the only explanation.
The Jews lived by these commands to love others despite their differences. If put into these same circumstances, they would have helped those who refused them. We must ask ourselves, then, what is it that would drive us to be so cruel to the innocent? A great cause of this may be a simple ignorance of those different than us. This is where stereotypes are born and bred. A domino effect would be soon to follow of prejudice and ultimately hate crimes. It is all planted by one small seed of doubt, cultivated through misconceptions encouraged by others. This happened with the Jews and Nazis, and it is still happening today with the Ku Klux Klan, the Bloods and the Crypts, radical Muslims, and other violent hate groups. How did these all start? Perhaps it was with the idea that each was supreme over their prey, or maybe because they grew up on these stereotypes and chose to act upon them. I cannot claim to know the inner workings of a mind filled with such animosity. I do not understand the reasons behind the bias nor the attraction to join such a group. It can only lead to one thing, reflected in the words written on the alter in the room,
Here lies earth gathered from the death camps, concentration camps, sites of mass execution, and ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, and from cemeteries of American soldiers who fought and died to defeat Nazi Germany.
Are we just as guilty as these radicals when it comes down to it? Do we just stand on the sidelines watching, waiting for someone to speak up, and all the while staying silent? That is what most of the world did as Hitler conquered other nations, and as he imprisoned millions of Jews. We ask where humanity has gone and do nothing about it. Fear can drive a great many people into silent submission like unknowingly walking into a gas chamber when you think it’s a shower. If we are already on our way to this slaughterhouse, why not at least attempt to take a stand? Either way we are headed in the same direction, but standing up would give us hope and may even make a difference.
We tend to be stereotypical while looking at other people. Everyone, admittedly or not, has a bias. Do we get these from our families or friends? Wherever it comes from, it is wrong to assume characteristics and viewpoints of other people. It is worse when we act upon these assumptions. The real reason why we tend to do this is the fear of the unknown in other people.
We can start at the root of the problem by education ourselves and each other about different cultures, religions, and age groups. The more we learn about others, the less likely we tend to label them like the Nazis did with their patches, and the more we come to appreciate them. If we keep our minds open, we may not just learn about them, but also learn from them. I truly believe that we will lead a more enriched life by immerging ourselves in different cultures. Tolerance should not be considered a taboo word. We may not agree with each other, but accepting each other as individuals despite our differences can improve our lives greatly.
I look around and see people of different ages and ethnicities, and I see a bright hope for our future. We are a long way away from Hitler, but we still have pretty far to go until we can achieve perfect equality and tolerance of each other. If we continue to work towards this goal daily while helping each other, we may someday see that day when all humanity is truly humane. Hope is what I see in this room through the detail and thought put into it. We have come to realize our downfalls and honor those who did not deserve this punishment that was inflicted upon them.
The Room of Remembrance was there for us to remember those who were lost in the Holocaust. It was to pay tribute to the millions of lives sacrificed for no good reason in order for us to open our eyes to see man’s cruelty. It makes us think of the innocence of those lost, and encourages us to try to make a difference for the future. We see a bright light at the end of this tunnel we know as life. If we choose to become more responsible and tolerant of those around us, we will change our lives and the lives of future generations. It is possible to be different and take a stand towards loving everyone, despite our differences.