All high school seniors in the program I work for have to go to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
I dread visiting Holocaust Museums. I’ve been to the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Yad Vashem in Israel, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. It has gotten easier, but I’ve never gone as a chaperone before and felt the need to constrict my emotions. This tour is for the students, after all, not for me to process my own heritage and the stories within my family which are lost.
In Holocaust Museums my policy is silence. I do not speak and I do not wish others to speak around me. But our docent tour guide today asked a series of questions at the start of the tour I wanted desperately to answer.
She asked, “What is the Holocaust? What is a Holocaust? What is genocide?” She asked us to name genocides occurring right now. She asked the most important question: “Why do we study the Holocaust?”
The docent explained how it is the enormity of the Holocaust that makes it so noteworthy. 11 million people were murdered. She explained how this was industrialized and mechanized slaughter, so different than even the war the Holocaust is engulfed in.
Genocide is not a unique violence against Jews, yet we talk about the Holocaust as if it is the only genocide that deserves attention.
My answer to why we study the Holocaust is different. The Nazis were Europeans. The Nazis were cultured Western Europeans. The murderers and the men who planned these horrors were white. And even though Hitler and the Nazis classified Jews as a separate race, the Jews of Europe who were murdered (for the most part) looked like white people.
To some degree, the western world cares and funds Holocaust education projects and Holocaust museums because the victims look like white people and the perpetrators were white people. The Holocaust is a stain on white supremacy. It dismantles the idea that such violence and atrocities only happen in the darker places of the world–Africa or the Middle East. And so if Holocaust education is funded with slogans of Never Again, Never Again and mean Never Again will white people perpetrate these crimes.
Think about the way the west reacts to terrorism. Terrorism hits Paris in November 2015 and people change their Facebook picture to the French flag. Terrorism strikes Brussels in March 2016 and the news coverage was endless. It’s not to say these attacks were not devastating. Innocent people died. But, just as the Holocaust is not the only genocide, terrorist attacks in Europe are not the only terrorist attacks that matter. As Nadine Ajaka describes in The Atlantic, when terror strikes the Middle East for instance, we are left to our own devices for media coverage and world support.
Terrorism across Syria, bombings in Beirut, in Ankara, in Istanbul, Boko Haram’s killings in Nigeria, and other attacks, even those not motivated by religion. Where is the funding for museums to educate against all forms of hatred and murder?
We study the Holocaust so the West can say “Never again” with a clear conscience. But we can, and should and must, study the Holocaust as one example out of many of human cruelty, human compassion, and human resistance. We must study the Holocaust until Never Again is true for all.