Given that the closest I’d ever gotten to Washington, D.C. was a vicarious tour of the White House via “Beavis and Butt-head Do America,” the opportunity presented by KSC’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies department seemed highly tempting.
The prospect of embarking on this annual visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum became all the more compelling in light of several trip vets’ highly positive accounts of their overall experience.
I’m hardly the most worldly or well-traveled chap you’ll ever meet, and so $100 seemed relatively little to hand over for what would surely prove to be a powerful, awareness-broadening experience.
The actuality of the thing easily surpassed my expectations. Photographs of the Lincoln Memorial don’t do justice to a fraction of its sheer enormity.
For that matter, every major landmark is an architectural marvel. A surprise encounter with Occupy highlighted the kaleidoscope of lifestyles, worldviews, and socioeconomic situations forming the makeup of an urban environment. And the profound sense of gravity and pathos emanating from the WWII, Vietnam, and Korean War memorials defies description. I’d say all this was more than worth a couple drawn-out bus trips.
That is to say nothing of the centerpiece. Given what I knew of the subject matter, I was ready for the museum to be harrowing, and it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park (nor should it have been).
The depth of cruelty to which people may sink defies comprehension, and perhaps nowhere is this demonstrated with greater and more terrible clarity than in the horrors of the Holocaust.
Unthinkable as the individual acts may be, even more disturbing is the scale of the effort.
In taking advantage of pre-existing base tendencies and prejudices at the same time that he employed a horribly effective oratory prowess in the creation of new ones, Adolf Hitler successfully tapped into the capacity for blinding hatred and sadism which, history tells us, might just be an unfortunate element of the human condition.
While I may have been able to steel myself for the content of the museum, the presentation isn’t something you can really prepare for.
Cramped, claustrophobic corridors, a dearth of natural light and a scarcity of seating work in tandem to evoke the feeling of being herded through.
The flow of information is carefully structured so as to provide a demythologized portrait of Nazism’s rise and fall.
Short films documenting such topics as anti-Semitism’s development over the centuries help to cement the impression that this was not some freak phenomenon but rather the culmination of various unchecked social and ideological complexes.
Failure to recognize these contributing factors, after all, paves the way for re-occurrence.
That said, rational analysis can only go so far when one is faced with the unprecedented magnitude of suffering perpetrated by all those good Germans. Verbal description fails when it comes to displays of victims’ everyday belongings.
Scores of shoes, one host to living, breathing, distinctive individuals and now ominously empty vessels, convey the atrocity of the Holocaust with as much visceral concision as any written account I’ve come across.
Seeing the SS spread like a virus across a European map (and the camps along with it), you can’t help but struggle to fathom how so many could have been roped into this insanity.
Context regarding German economic angst and the subsequent desire for a scapegoat does little to alleviate bafflement that the majority of a population could be coerced into mass murder.
The uprising of (usually ill-fated) resistance groups like the White Rose gives one a modicum of hope for humanity, but this is nearly outweighed by the droves of ostensibly “average” folks who had little to no problem doing their sordid part.
Those at the top of the chain make for no less consternation. That numerous SS higher-ups held doctorates certainly challenges the notion that education and the building of character automatically go hand-in-hand.
This particular detail, I think, highlights the importance of the HGS major as well as study of the liberal arts at large.
Ideally, education should function on a deeper level than the mechanical imparting of pure knowledge.
It should strive to awaken conscience, empathy, the ability to detach from the mob and evaluate one’s cultural surroundings as free of ideological blinders as possible. “Ideal” would be the operative term here, since such attributes often defy qualification and thus are intrinsically difficult to “teach,” per se.
Still, the mere existence of the museum instills hope in the better tendencies of our makeup.
I obviously couldn’t say it was a “good” experience, but it most definitely was a necessary one (though I’ll never understand how my HGS friends can immerse themselves in this stuff on a constant basis – all the kudos in the world). Should you get the chance, I’d highly recommend finding out for yourself.
Justin Levesque can be contacted at email@example.com