Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lessons from the Holocaust Museum

I concluded my sightseeing in Washington, DC, today with a visit to the Holocaust Museum. I had been there previously (more than once in fact), but it is always worth another visit.

Observing the widespread ignorance among so many young people about the Second World War, it occurred to me that the Holocaust Museum needs to be complemented by a really good War Museum. (Think London's Imperial War Museum!) Not only would that be desirable in its own terms, it would also better situate the Holocaust (and other tragedies of the 20th century) in their historical context. The Holocaust, after all, in its final and deadliest manifestations, was itself to some extent a consequence of the war (specifically the German conquest of Poland and parts of Russia, etc, with large Jewish populations) and only ended finally as one of the benefits flowing from the total victory of the Allies and the unconditional surrender of Germany.

That point aside, I was really struck this time by how, in hammering home the issue of the refusal of others to take in Jewish refugees, the museum's presentation effectively makes a connection with the larger dimensions of the constant back-and-forth in the American psyche about new immigrants being welcomed - or not - to this land of immigrants. Of course, open immigration would probably not have saved those in eastern Europe who came under German control only after the war had begun, but it would certainly have helped many German and Austrian Jews to escape before the war actually broke out. Whatever conclusions one ends up drawing about immigration policy today, the museum does help highlight the perennial neuralgic character of this issue - and the disastrous human toll bad immigration policies have produced.

Of course, the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust for citizens and statesmen today must be a perpetual vigilance against the enemies of the Jewish people - whether those who would actually push Israel into the Sea, if only they had the actual means at hand to do so, or those who either malevolently or misguidedly offer them aid and comfort.

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