You begin with a history of how it all came to be, the brilliant curation of exhibits backed by strategic lighting and design, height and weight and magnitude. You walk down, down, down into darkness as you enter the era of hatred and systematic genocide of my people and you stay down in the no-natural-light bowels of the building, barbed wire high above your head to simulate what it might have felt like to be incarcerated in a concentration camp.
Only when the war is nearing its inevitable end, and liberation looms close, do you walk up out of the darkness, toward the eternal flame, into natural light again. And there, you see portraits and stories of righteous people, ending with the famous Anne Frank, with a square cutout in the display that perfectly frames your view of the growing sapling planted in this Michigan landscape, a piece of her chestnut tree from Amsterdam.
It was only at liberation that the tears started to come. I’ve learned about the Holocaust all my life – so much so that when I considered taking a college history class devoted to it, my mother discouraged me, saying, “Haven’t you learned enough about it?”
The thing is, you can never learn enough about hatred and systematic attempts at annihilation. Because the minute you say you know it all is the minute you begin to forget.
At the liberation exhibit, the lights are off and TV screens blare their fuzzy white-blue lights with photos of the Jews the way the Allied troops found them. Emaciated. Ill. Piles of corpses, some missing eyes or limbs. Desperate. Decimated.
Those are my people. That could have been me.
And today, with all the Jew-hatred flying around the world, it is dangerously close to happening again.
In the end of the exhibits, a wall features a larger-than-life apology from the New York Times in 2001, admitting to burying the stories they knew were happening, to minimizing Hitler’s strategic plans to wipe the world clean of Jews.
What do you think is happening today?
Do not kid yourself into thinking that anything has changed. We have the illusion of safety and acceptance, but around the world people are Jew-hating easily and quickly in response to what’s happening in the Middle East.
And the New York Times buries the stories behind compassion for the terrorists.
In case you aren’t up-to-date on current politics, Hamas, the controlling power in Gaza, has in its constitutional charter the complete and total annihilation of Israel. And in case you weren’t aware, Israel is the tiniest nation in the Middle East, even tinier than when it started by giving away land in hopes for peace.
And let’s look at how Israel even came to be: in the shadow of the Holocaust, on the heels of the deaths of 6 Million Jews, a tiny nation fought for its independence, to be a place, the only place in the entire world, where Jews could come no-questions-asked and be welcome. Live free.
It’s about a 7-hour drive from the top of Israel to the bottom. That’s all. East to west is something like three hours, give or take. It’s a small nation. And yet, it shouldn’t be allowed to exist?
Let me ask you a blunt question: where can I go in the world and know I am safe? Here in America, we Jews have been allowed to observe our religious practices and wear visible symbols of our identity without much taunt in major cities. Small towns and the Deep South? Forget about it. There are still places in America where it is not safe to be a Jew.
And Germany. And England. And France. And Belgium. And Brussels. And Vancouver. And Australia.
Need I go on?
Let’s just for a minute consider what it means to be a Jew: born to a Jewish parent, you continue the legacy of thousands of years of traditions. You believe in One God. You focus on family and education and Scripture. You believe in achieving your goals to be “a light unto the nations.”
People hate you for it? Explain it to me. Because I just don’t understand.
So I am proud to be an American and I realize all the freedoms and values I enjoy here. I also know that less than 100 years ago, my brethren were turned away when their boat approached the shores of my country, and they were sent back to known death camps run by the Nazis.
And I know that today, with all the violence going on between Israel and Gaza, it is my people who are blamed and the madness of Hamas, and its unconditional call for Israel to be wiped off the map, are bizarrely ignored.
My son and I walked through the Holocaust Museum yesterday and although I’ve heard this story so many times, it was as if it had new resonance, dangerously close meaning. I’ll never understand why the world is filled with hatred. I’ll never understand the desire to kill another person – just look into their eyes, anyone’s eyes, and if you don’t see yourself reflected back, then I can’t help you.
We are all the same, each and every one of us. Living, breathing, hoping, dreaming beings created in the image of the divine. We are brilliant and beautiful and stupid and silly and each and every one of us deserves a chance to experience the joys and sorrows of life.
None of us have the right to take away the life of another. And I’m not even sure why anyone would want to. If you can explain to me the weird workings of this sick world, I’ll be eternally grateful because as of today, it seems all upside down and crazy.