I wonder if those who yearn for the Rapture, an event in which the vast majority of the human race is supposed to be consigned to torture and death, realize that this is the moral equivalent of yearning for the Holocaust? Perhaps they ought to take a closer look, as I did, at what a holocaust really means.
I had the opportunity of visiting Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance (MOT) last year. If you’ve never heard of it before it’s a rather unusual kind of museum. It’s not mainly concerned with displaying artifacts and documents (though it has plenty of them), but with challenging people to examine themselves, to learn about prejudice (a thing which none of us are immune to feeling) and, as their mission statement says, to confront their most closely-held assumptions and assume responsibility for change. That’s a pretty tall order and it’s interesting to see how MOT tries to accomplish it.
I was fortunate enough to accompany a group of 7th graders from the Hebrew school at Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo on their tour. They had been studying the Holocaust in class and a visit to MOT, their teacher told me, was a way to bring home the reality of things they’d only read about in books. I listened to them and watched their faces as we moved from room to room.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at MOT is the security. Before you’re even allowed in the parking lot, guards check your car thoroughly for anything suspicious. Once inside, you are screened and go through a metal detector just like the ones at airports. This brought home to me right from the start, just how intolerant a place our world is. The 7th graders took all the security in stride as if it were an ordinary everyday part of their lives. I found that disturbing too.
At the beginning of the tour, everyone gets a plastic card with name and picture of one child who experienced the Holocaust. It’s a random selection from a pool of victims and you carry it with you throughout the tour. At various intervals you are invited to put the card into readers and find out more about “your” child and his or her personal history. At the end of the tour you find out the child’s ultimate fate -whether they lived or died. You take home a printout of their history; a sort of memento mori from the Museum of Tolerance.
A docent guided our group through the exhibits. Only about half the museum is dedicated to the Holocaust so the first part of the tour took us through rooms where live feeds from around the world showed the news and Internet connections allowed the kids to cycle through what seemed to be an endless stream of hate sites. Pick your race or creed. There’s at least one site out there run by people who don’t like you.
MOT prides itself on the use of technology in the exhibits. A case in point is the highly interactive “Point of View Diner.” It looks like the sort of place you’d expect to eat at if you were living in the 1950s but when you take a stool at the counter, you find, instead of food, a keypad. And instead of menus, you see screens and monitors. You are shown a faux TV news report about a fatal prom-night car crash and asked to assess the level of responsibility of the people involved. With the keypads, each viewer gets to individually choose who they wish to interview and what questions they want to ask them. It’s intended to get you thinking about personal responsibility.
The Holocaust part of the museum is likewise technologically-oriented. While there are artifacts such as Nazi and concentration camp uniforms, etc., the emphasis is on telling a story. Faceless manikins in various settings provide the narrative, often in the words of actual witnesses, while historical footage is projected on screens. When each segment is done, you’re moved to the next room. Thus the history of the Holocaust is covered fairly quickly. It provides a comprehensive overview but not, perhaps, as engaging a one as it could be.
Despite the fact that the Tolerance Center/Holocaust tour took 3 hours to complete, I thought it had a slightly rushed feel to it. MOT gets a lot of traffic (about 350,000 visitors per year) and they handle it with a “people-mover” kind of tour. While docents provide some background and ask the group the occasional question, their main job seems to be to get people into the next room when each segment ends and instruct them in the use of interactive devices where necessary. There wasn’t much time to look at artifacts and “connect” with the history. That’s just my impression. It was a little harder to assess the kids’ opinions. They didn’t have much opportunity to talk about them during the tour.
The kids were a great bunch though; attentitive and always ready to speak up when called on. When, for instance, the docent asked them who the victims of the Holocaust were, I learned from a 7th grader that it wasn’t just the Jews, but also the gypsys, communists,, Poles, homosexuals, the handicapped, Jehovah’s Witnesses, intellectuals and thousands of priests and pastors.
Near the end of the tour, there was a little chance for a more personal engagement. Rabbi Mike Lotker, who was leading our little group, brought us into a conference room and made some closing remarks. “Can something be legal and still be wrong?” he asked. Nothing that the Nazis did, he said, was illegal. German law existed, or was made to exist, that justified every measure the Nazis took and the most common defense of Nazi war criminals was that they were just following orders. The legal tribunal at the Nuremburg trials didn’t accept that, Rabbi Lotker said, and neither should we. When confronted with unjust or immoral laws, he told us, every individual is responsible for their choice of saying “yes” or “no” to them. “The job is ours,” he said. “It is up to us.”
The rabbi ended his talk with a point I hadn’t thought about much. “Already,” he told the 7th graders, “there are people out there who say the Holocaust never happened. They are writing theses, dissertations and books to support their claims. Yours is the last generation that will see and hear living witnesses to the Holocaust. It is up to you to tell your children and grandchildren what you have heard.”
There remained but one thing to do before leaving. I took the card that bore “my” child’s name and picture, the card I had been clutching for 3 hours, and fed it into the last reader. An 8″ x 10″ printout was dutifully spat out by the machine and I found out his ultimate fate. He was a 5-year old boy who hadn’t lived to see 6. He perished, along with his brother, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944.
The Museum of Tolerance is located at 9786 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035. You can find ticket and visitor information online. Make reservations by calling 310-772-2505. MOT is sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
If you enjoy my articles, you can click on “subscribe” at the top of the page and you’ll receive notice when new ones are published.