Friday, April 30, 2004

Published - Enough Holocaust Museums

I was published in JWeekly, the San Francisco Bay Area's Jewish weekly magazine. The following editorial appears in this weekend's edition:

Enough Holocaust museums

A quick Google search will reveal no less than 26 Holocaust museums in the United States alone. Scan the headlines and you can’t miss it: a new Holocaust museum recently opened in Hungary; the groundbreaking for a Holocaust museum in Skopje, Macedonia is scheduled to begin soon. In these times, when intermarriage is skyrocketing and assimilation is following close behind, is it really appropriate to pour million after million into museums?

If the goal of these museums is to foster the memory of the Holocaust, they are failing. Polls consistently show a worldwide decrease in Holocaust awareness. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that 35 percent of Europeans think the Jews should "stop playing the victim" and 15 percent think that the Holocaust was exaggerated. The German newspaper Die Zeit found that 65 percent of German teenagers do not even know what the word "holocaust" means. Even in America, 22 percent polled by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum thought it was possible the Holocaust never took place.

Holocaust museums are equally ineffective at fostering Jewish identity. For Jewish children in the public school system, a field trip to the Holocaust museum may be the only contact with the Jewish world they have growing up. Barbed wire sculptures and photographs of emaciated corpses send a clear message to these children: "Stay away!" It sometimes seems that Yiddishkeit (Jewish feeling or content) has been replaced by Holocaustkeit.

So how can we make the memory of the Holocaust permanent, strengthen Jewish identity and boldly proclaim, "Never Again!"? Our history shows and the statistics prove that the only way to strengthen Jewish identity and prevent assimilation is through education. There are Jews walking around today, descended from survivors, who have never heard of Passover, never seen Israel,and never said the Sh’ma.

This "silent Holocaust" is made worse by the fact that it alienates the younger generation from exactly those whom it is supposed to remember. The Yiddishkeit of the six million seems foreign and strange to the Jew who has never learned. Education, outreach and personal involvement are the only way to bridge this gap, make the Holocaust more real, and ensure that there will be a next generation to remember the survivors.

A Holocaust museum can be an important memorial to the fallen, but in a generation facing the existential threats of Jewish ignorance and assimilation, we have to ask ourselves where we can most effectively direct our energy. The next time you walk into a Holocaust museum, look around and think what could have been done with all that energy and money. When you are given the guided tour of the exhibits, instead imagine that the tour guide is a Jewish-school instructor teaching about the holidays. When you are in the auditorium watching movies of bodies being piled up like cordwood, imagine that the room is a classroom full of eager students learning the aleph-bet. Try to imagine yourself as one of the victims of the gas chambers looking down on us today and ask yourself what you would rather see: a thriving Jewish school, or an expensive tomb.