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Memento Mori

by Lisa Singh

Here in Richmond, the museum is expanding, with a new site underway at a 40,000-square-foot warehouse that is about eight times the current home's size. It's a $6 million project. Almost half the money has been raised for the effort, which will showcase re-creations of key events including that famous photo of Buchenwald's skeletal survivors in their bunks eyeing the world on their liberation day. To lend a hand, the local JC Penney and Franco's have donated some of the 60 mannequins that will be fashioned into survivors. As the museum's co-founder, Al Rosenbaum, said to me when I visited the new site, "It's going to be one enormous impact."

Maybe so, but just like that billboard and its enticement of an $85,000 necklace, the museum and its efforts come across as tacky and ineffective. For one, at its current location, the museum includes theatrical smoke that comes through the vents in an attempt to simulate the gas chambers.

There's no doubt that those behind the project have good intentions. Indeed, any person with heart and conscience must sympathize with survivors such as Jay Ipson, the museum's director and founder. A Lithuanian Jew, he and his family were deported to the Kovno Ghetto before they escaped to a farm and lived underground for nearly a year in another hell, a 9-by-12-by-4-foot dugout infested with mice. Thirteen people called that space home. So low was the ceiling that even the smallest child among them could not stand. And only a 2-inch pipe provided air.

By that time, nearly all of Ipson's Jewish countrymen, some 228,000, were being slaughtered by Germans and obliging Lithuanians who sang their national anthem as the blood was shed. Mr. Ipson is one of only 2,500 Jews from that country who survived.

Now the question is: Does this museum, and others nationwide, best serve the memory of those who died? I ask cautiously — and with concern. My mother is a Jew. Born in Romania in 1939, she spent the war in hiding, while her grandmother and eight aunts and uncles died in the camps. When liberation came, she lingered in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany for four years, before coming to America.

Jews, especially Holocaust survivors who are now reaching the end of their natural lives, have a passion to make Americans see the significance of that time when close to two-thirds of Europe's Jews were killed, while almost an entire continent — and Christendom — stood silent or worse yet, became executioners themselves.

Since it opened, the Virginia Holocaust Museum's stated goal has been "Tolerance Through Education." But in its attempts to make the Holocaust relevant to the larger American public, and hence, "less Jewish," the museum has adopted this flimsy apologia: "To say that the Virginia Holocaust Museum is about the Holocaust that occurred in Europe would be an incomplete description. Though the Museum is about what happened in Europe in the early 20th Century, it's also about every genocide, oppression and intolerant act being committed around the world right now." In other words, the Holocaust isn't really about those Jews; it's about intolerance, any intolerance, anywhere, anytime.

No. The truth is that Jew-hatred was right at the heart of "Mein Kampf" and the soul of the Nazi party. Universalizing the Holocaust misses this point. It was, as Winston Churchill said, "probably the greatest, most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men."

A genocide, by definition, aimed at the total elimination of a people, has no limit except the ultimate limit. All genocides are motivated by hate. In that, the Holocaust is not unique. The Holocaust's uniqueness is in the astonishing audacity of its scale and the icy passion with which it was executed. It is virtually impossible to look the Holocaust in the eye. To see the Holocaust plain is to see a millennial revelation of evil and a failure — perhaps the failure — of Western civilization and Christendom.

That said, I have not suffered. I was not there. And I do not claim any moral authority because my mother's family suffered and died. Nor do I speak with some perverse glee about the victim status of Jews during that time. I am not a victim. The Jews are not victims. Our history is too rich and vibrant for that. I speak only as one who recognizes that we must approach the Holocaust with greater truth, for the sake of those who survived — and those who did not.

Simply put, what happened during those years can't be interpreted through some assimilationist ideology, as the museum has tried to do. Indeed, many American Jews have attempted to use the death of 6 million Jews as a rallying cry for pluralism and tolerance of all groups. In its fund-raising brochure, the museum does much the same, and includes headlines from today's papers as proof that the same hatred that sparked the Holocaust is in evidence when it comes to the treatment of members of other groups. Among those headlines: "Gay and Lesbian Hate Crimes Rise 8 percent Nationally." It's as if once we learn to accept gays and lesbians, then we will have learned the lesson of the Holocaust.

Still, survivors such as Mr. Ipson remain driven, somehow, anyhow, to reach the American public's soul, with a billboard, a display, a new space — all in the effort to remember the dead and connect with the living. With all due respect, I feel that his attempts fall short. Yet, there is a terrible pathos in his efforts, and much for us to contemplate about his failure — and our own. That might well be the message of the billboard — and the $85,000 necklace. S

Lisa Singh has written on cultural matters for The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun, Weekly Standard, and other publications.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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