Category Archive: Holocaust Centers and Museums

Where 500 children ‘disappeared’ from Nazi clutches, a new Dutch Shoah museum emerges

Taking shape in the heart of Amsterdam’s old Jewish district, a former teachers college to be a testament to the 102,000 Dutch Jews murdered in the Holocaust

20170115_110328-e1485948365264AMSTERDAM — A former teachers’ college where more than 500 Jewish children were saved during the Holocaust is being transformed into the Netherlands’ first full-fledged Shoah museum.

Already operating since last May without a website or much publicity, the emerging National Holocaust Museum will fill a three-story brick building in Amsterdam’s former Jewish neighborhood, close to other sites tied to the Shoah. For now, only parts of the ground-level are open, including a small auditorium and reading room. According to plans, the museum will be completed by 2020 at a cost of $24 million.

“We aim to forge connections between people from different backgrounds by presenting our collective history as a pillar of today’s democratic society and our sense of justice,” according to a statement posted inside the entrance.

More than 102,000 Dutch Jews were killed by the Nazis, with 30,000 Jews living in the Netherlands today. The ease with which Dutch Jews were isolated and deported during the war continues to haunt witnesses, and the Dutch lost a larger percentage of their Jewish population than any country apart from Poland.

“In the years ahead, a permanent exhibition will be developed that tells the story of the persecution and genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the events leading up to it, and the complex consequences,” according to the museum.

Those “complex consequences” could include the treatment of Jews who returned from Nazi camps. Notoriously, government and church authorities were often unwilling to reunite hidden Jewish children with their parents. In those early post-war years, the first edifice that survivors felt compelled to build in Amsterdam was a literal expression of “gratitude” toward Dutch society, as opposed to a memorial for murdered loved ones.

So far, the Holocaust museum steers clear of politics by focusing on personal stories. In one room, photographs of children are paired with objects they once enjoyed, including a violin, diary and table games. The floor and podiums are made of unfinished wood, evoking young lives cut short.

Few artifacts tell as compelling a story as the ordinary-looking building itself, where Dutch and Jewish resisters operated a bold rescue scheme beneath the gaze of their oppressors.

When 500 children ‘disappeared’

The location of the teacher training college made the rescue operation possible. Now home to the National Holocaust Museum, the college was directly across the street from the Hollandsche Schouwburg, once a popular Yiddish theater. Two years into their occupation of Amsterdam, the Nazis converted the theater into a holding pen for Jews en route to deportation.

Beginning in July of 1942, thousands of Dutch Jews were incarcerated in the gutted theater on their way to the transit camp Westerbork. Because the Nazis could not tolerate the crying of infants and children, the decision was made to house young ones across the street in a creche, or nursery, that — fortuitously — shared a courtyard with the teacher training college.

The covert operation was directed by Walter Süskind, a German Jew appointed by the Jewish Council to run operations at the facility. As the list master, Süskind recorded the name of every Jew brought into the theater, including the deportees’ children taken across the street.

After confirming that a particular child’s parents were willing to send him or her into hiding, Süskind eliminated that child’s name from Nazi records. Next, staff of the nursery took these “disappeared” children through a courtyard and into the Reformed Teacher Training College. Inside the school, heroic director Johan van Hulst and student volunteers smuggled the children into hiding with Dutch families.

According to survivors, the “forgotten hero” Süskind managed to befriend the SS officer in charge of deportations, whom Süskind kept supplied with schnapps and cigars. Also known as “the Dutch Schindler,” Süskind was eventually deported along with his family, and he perished during a death march in Poland. However, the rescue operation he led — through which 500 adults were also sent into hiding — was never uncovered by the Nazis.

In addition to the courtyard route, older escapees made clever use of the street tram as it stopped between the theater and college. With trolley cars blocking their view, German sentries at the theater were unable to see the college entrance, allowing people to exit and follow alongside the tram.

The former Jewish district will also soon witness ground-breaking on a long-anticipated Memorial of Names. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the edifice will include the names of 102,000 Dutch Jews murdered in the Shoah, as well as 220 Roma and Sinti victims. Names will be laser-etched onto bricks along with dates of birth and death. From above, the structure will spell the Hebrew word Lizkor, “in memory of.”

Both the National Holocaust Museum and planned Memorial of Names are part of the 2013-inaugurated Jewish Cultural Quarter, where visitors can purchase one ticket to tour sites including the Jewish Historical Museum, Portuguese Synagogue, and Hollandsche Schouwburg, now a memorial with a small but impressive exhibit on the fate of Amsterdam’s Jews.

Whereas the Jewish cultural quarter’s restored synagogues shed light on the heyday of Jewish Amsterdam, the beta-version Holocaust museum and adjacent Hollandsche Schouwburg recall the near-elimination of Dutch Jewry, still a polarizing topic in the Netherlands.

“The two locations together represent the story of the Holocaust: the [former theater] is a place of deportation, collaboration and remembrance of the dead, [and] the college is a place where authentic human courage and selflessness were reflected,” according to the museum, which hopes to be “a beacon for the future.”

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A star-studded ‘Night’ to honor Elie Wiesel in New York

Five-hour January 29 event at Museum of Jewish Heritage will feature diverse community reading of the slim 116-page volume that changed the world

wiesel-FEATUREMillions have read Elie Wiesel’s landmark Holocaust memoir “Night.” When Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club in 2006, she turned it into an instant bestseller and countless students continue to read it as part of their high school curriculums.

But seldom is the slim volume about the author’s experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald Nazi concentration camps read aloud.

A special event in New York on Sunday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day (which takes place two days earlier on January 27) with a wide array of artists, actors, writers, community leaders, government officials, students, Holocaust survivors and survivors of other genocides. They will honor the memory of the late Wiesel in a unique community reading of “Night” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Co-presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the reading will take place over five hours in the museum’s Edmond J. Safra Hall. It will be simulcast throughout the museum’s galleries and streamed via the internet to online viewers around the world. On-stage participants will take turns reading at least one page from the 116-page work. Most of the readers will read in English, and some will read parts of the text in Yiddish and French, in a nod to the languages in which “Night” was published before its translation to English and some 30 other languages.

Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and former Anti-Defamation League national director, was instrumental in organizing the event honoring Wiesel, who died last July 2 aged 87.

Foxman told The Times of Israel he was overwhelmed by the uniformly positive response from the invited readers, as well as public demand to attend. The 1,000 allotted spaces are filled, and there is a waiting list of those still hoping to have a chance to personally hear a portion of the reading.

Foxman said it was evident from the start that “Night” would be the central element for the program marking the first International Holocaust Remembrance Day since Wiesel’s passing.

“Elie’s greatest impact on the universe was the testimony of ‘Night.’ It was obvious that we would use this as a vehicle. What Elie did was take a Jewish tragedy and place it on the world stage. He transposed Jewish pain to a universal scale. ‘Night’ is the most- read Holocaust-related book, or perhaps second only to ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’” Foxman said.

Folksbiene associate artistic director Motl Didner said there was a strong connection between Wiesel and Yiddish culture. Wiesel attended numerous Folksbiene productions, and the theater staged a special tribute to him in 2010. On a more intimate level, Wiesel was a familiar presence in Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek’s life as he grew up, as the Nobel Laureate was friendly with Mlotek’s parents, Yiddish Forverts editor Yosl Mlotek and Yiddish song expert Chana Mlotek.

“The Folksbiene has been a home for the survivor community for the 70 years since the end of the Holocaust and now serves the second, third and fourth generations,” said Didner.

“Elie Wiesel was a great inspiration to our community. Yiddish was his native language. It was the language in which he began his writing career. He even sang in Yiddish. It was only fitting that with his passing, especially given our new partnership with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, that we honor his memory by reading his most influential work,” Didner said.

Some of the readers participating in Sunday’s event knew Wiesel personally, while others never had the chance.

“I never had the pleasure and honor of meeting Mr. Wiesel, but I wish I had. So participating feels like a way of finally coming together,” said Tony, Oscar and Golden Globe-winning actor Joel Grey.

“Like most people, I too was devastated, and devastated by recollections of the Holocaust to this day,” said Grey, best known for his role as the Master of Ceremonies in both the stage and film versions of “Cabaret.”

Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh, whom younger audiences will recognize as the overbearing mother in the current hit TV series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” knew and loved Wiesel. Her recollections of Wiesel as a man of moral and social courage, and also someone who always put concern for others first, inspired her to participate.

Feldshuh recalls how immediately after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel “held my face in his hands and said, ‘Tovah, how are you?’… that was his moment. The world was focused on him and he was so cellularly empathic that his first thoughts were naturally, effortlessly about ‘the other’ — in this case, it was lucky, lucky ‘I.’”

Sex therapist and media personality Dr. Ruth Westheimer also has fond memories of Wiesel, whom she called “a very important person in my life.” Westheimer praised Wiesel for everything he did for Jews and non-Jews alike, especially those who lived through the Nazi era.

As Westheimer reads her portion of “Night,” she will think of her friend Wiesel and miss him. She’ll especially miss the way he would greet her.

“I have met him many, many times, and I always got a kiss. What I miss most about him is his wonderful smile and the kiss on my cheek,” she shared.

The list of readers is crammed with famous New Yorkers from many different professional fields, from violinist Itzhak Perlman to New York Police Department commissioner James O’Neill to Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Israel will be represented by Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York.

At the end of the five hours, members of the Wiesel family concluded the reading.

Wiesel’s son Elisha Wiesel told The Times of Israel that he is pleased with how the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Folksbiene conceived of the event.

”I think my father would have appreciated the respect with which the Museum of Jewish Heritage is approaching the event. No musical interludes, no speeches, no performances – just the reading. Some messages are too important to dilute,” he said.

Although the community reading was planned to coincide with a day memorializing past tragedy, its resonance with current events is at the forefront of the younger Wiesel’s mind.

“Listeners to this particular reading of ‘Night’ need only walk a few blocks to the site of the 9/11 Memorial to be reminded that hatred and murderous intent are unfortunately alive and well today,” said Wiesel.

“There are still political and religious leaders who irresponsibly defame the ‘other’ and seek to divide us along our fault lines: religion, skin color, nationality, class, gender, sexual preference, and political affiliation,” he said.

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Elderly survivors return to Auschwitz, 72 years after liberation

German FM says death camp’s name stands for entire Nazi ‘murder machinery’ that remains part of his country’s history

Poland-Auschwitz-Anni_HoroWARSAW, Poland (AP) — Dozens of Auschwitz survivors placed wreaths and flowers Friday at the infamous execution wall of the former German death camp, paying homage to the victims of Adolf Hitler’s regime exactly 72 years after the camp’s liberation.

Jan. 27, the anniversary of the day that the Soviet army liberated the camp in German-occupied Poland in 1945, is recognized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and commemorative events were also being held across Europe and Israel.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the term “Auschwitz” stands for all the death camps and the entire Nazi “persecution and murder machinery” that remained part of Germany’s history.

He said that while Germany cannot change or undo what happened, the country has a continued obligation to commemorate the genocide, honor the memory of the victims and take responsibility for the crimes.

Noting the political instability in the world today, Steinmeier, said that “history should be a lesson, warning and incentive all at the same time. There can and should be no end to remembrance,” he said.

Steinmeier’s statement came hours before he was due to hand over the post of foreign minister to the current economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel.

Elderly survivors at Auschwitz, which today is a memorial site and museum, paid homage to those killed by wearing striped scarves reminiscent of the garb prisoners once wore there.

They walked slowly beneath the notorious gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free) and made their way as a group to the execution wall, where they lit candles and prayed.

Janina Malec, a Polish survivor whose parents were killed at the execution wall, told the PAP news agency that “as long as I live I will come here,” describing her yearly visit as a “pilgrimage.”

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Global initiatives virtually commemorate the Holocaust — in a very real way

Meaningful social media campaigns by Israel’s Yad Vashem and the World Jewish Congress make history and remembrance accessible to all ages

World-ort-CROPIt is remarkable to feel a connection with someone you’ve only met online. Even more so when he has been dead for the past 75 years. And yet, a random matching program on Yad Vashem’s IRemember Wall connects between a Facebook user and victim of the Holocaust in a deeply personal way.

For this writer, the name Chaim Gindel was drawn from the museum’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. He was born to David and Leja in Ołyka, Poland, in 1928. He was a 14-year-old student when he was murdered in the Shoah. His cause of death is unknown.

The too-short story is recounted on a Page of Testimony that was submitted in 1997 by a surviving cousin in Woodmere, New York. If interested, that handwritten page can be viewed, as well as the names of his siblings who also perished in the Holocaust.

Somehow, after pairing with this once anonymous stranger, the concept of the “6 million” is less about a quantifiable number and more a short hand for a collective of individual humans.

“Many, if not most people, don’t have a particular person or name that they know and commemorate,” said Dana Porath, Yad Vashem’s Internet Department Director.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, is one of several museums and institutions tapping into the potential of online presence and social media campaigns to raise awareness among an audience that increasingly has little first-person contact with the horrors of the Holocaust.

“We realized in the last couple of years, particularly in social media, that people want to do something more participatory. It’s fine to read, learn and explore, but with the opportunity to engage with a particular topic or issue, people really want to do something,” said Porath.

Porath, who was a Jewish educator for 15 years in North America before moving to Israel, began working at Yad Vashem in 1994 and joined the fledgling internet department in 1999. Today, the museum’s online presence is robust and growing.

“In 1999 I don’t know that we really had any expectations, we couldn’t envision what could happen and what the possibilities were,” said Porath. In addition to the myriad of educational materials, the museum has presented some 150 curated online exhibitions — currently “Last Letters From the Holocaust: 1941” — and dozens of social media projects.

Five years ago, Yad Vashem began the IRemember Wall project in which participants are linked with specific names of victims. The algorithm is purposefully random, because, said Porath, “Every victim deserves to be remembered.”

The project is held only once a year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Said Porath, it becomes “a collective experience” that combines the wall and the comments it garners. She said she expects to reach at least 3,000 participants this year.

“The possibilities created by technology have allowed us to reach out and engage in ways we couldn’t imagine,” said Porath.

Prompting the next generation’s memory

Leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, some 250,000 posted on social media using the hashtag, “#WeRemember” — from New York Senator Chuck Schumer to Dr. Ruth Westheimer to French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy. Some 120 million were reached in the World Jewish Congress campaign, according to a spokesperson. The international organization represents Jewish communities in 100 countries.

“The goal is to reach those who don’t know much about the Holocaust, or who might be susceptible to those who deny it, and to remind the world that such horrors could happen again,” said World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer.

Singer said that through the tools of social media, WJC hopes to engage the youth, “because, soon, it will be their responsibility to tell the story and ensure that humanity never forget.”

The project was adopted by Jewish schools around the world, with many pupils creating short films that were posted and shared widely.

Stefan Bialoguski, the public relations officer for World ORT, said that well over 1,000, “perhaps in the thousands,” of students in schools and colleges across the former Soviet Union, Israel and Europe took part. World ORT claims to be the largest global Jewish education and vocational training NGO.

“The energy which World ORT students have devoted to the #WeRemember project should reassure us that not only has the history of the Holocaust been passed on intact to a new generation, despite the worst attempts of deniers, but also that our children are unbowed by the weight of what happened to our people within living memory,” Bialoguski told The Times of Israel.

A 3D virtual ‘eyewitness to history’

It is this same impulse to preserve historical continuity in an era of fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors that has propelled another unusual project, the New Dimensions in Testimony by the USC Shoah Foundation. Using some 50 cameras at once, a dozen Holocaust survivors have individually been filmed giving 10-25 hours of testimony in an effort to create a 3D virtual “eyewitness to history.”

Set to launch in two museums this year, New Dimensions was in beta stage for some five years and had a 2015 trial run at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, with the first completed interactive testimony of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter of Toronto.

In addition to recounting the horrors of the Holocaust, the interactive hologram survivor can be asked questions, prompted to sing songs and tell of life before the tragedy. For many who wouldn’t dare ask personal questions for fear of insulting, interacting with this artificial intelligence can be freeing.

According to project literature, a survey of the Illinois pilot found over 95 percent of visitors felt the technology “enhanced their ability to connect” with Gutter’s story. Additionally, 68% of students reported “above average critical thinking ability after the interaction.”

“Everything is now in post-production to meet expected deployment in 2017,” state project materials and the project should open at the first two confirmed museums: the Illinois Holocaust Museum and in Terre Haute, Indiana, the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

In an era of technological leaps and bounds, the ability to engage a new audience is vastly magnified and the impulse to ride social media buzz is strong.

To capture the world’s attention, said Yad Vashem’s Porath, her team strives to make the commemoration of the Jewish victims and their life before the Holocaust accessible through contemporary issues such as the Olympics or International Women’s Day.

“We are always trying to have meaningful, relevant and respectful content,” said Porath. “But to make the Holocaust respectful in 140 characters — that’s a challenge.”

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How Auschwitz Can Be Both a Memorial and a Center for Education

20-1485285708How should we define the authentic remains of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, which today are protected and preserved by the Auschwitz Memorial?

Should we define it as:

  • 150 buildings, about 300 ruins, including those of five gas chambers and four crematoria in Birkenau that are especially important to the history of the camp.
  • Over 13 kilometres of fences, and more than three thousand concrete fence posts.
  • About 110,000 shoes and 3,800 suitcases of victims, 2,100 of which bear the names of their owners.
  • About 39,000 negatives of registration photographs of prisoners, 48 volumes with about 70,000 of their death certificates, 248 volumes of Zentralbauleitung documents, and 13,000 letters and cards mailed from the camp by prisoners.

This is just the beginning of the list which summarizes the extent and the challenge of our Museum.

There is also another priceless part of our authentic collection: the archives, with over 30,000 pages of testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses as well as over 45,000 pages of their memoirs. These are individual stories of people who survived, stories which can help us today to comprehend the existing architecture of the former camp through personal experiences, emotions and dilemmas.

I agree with the words of Menachem Rosensaft quoted by Tom Tillett that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” Yet Tillet is not accurate in saying that “the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage,” since, in fact, this building was never actually completed during the war.

Historical Decisions

This year the Auschwitz Memorial will be 70 years old. It was created thanks to the efforts of survivors in July 1947 and in many ways, the way we operate today is based on their decisions. One such decision was to organize and house exhibitions, archives, collections and the whole management of the institution of memory in the much better constructed buildings of Auschwitz I, and to leave Birkenau in as authentic a condition as possible.

Another key decision made by survivors was to create replicas of a few structures in Auschwitz I that Germans had destroyed: They reconstructed the execution wall and one of the gallows, and used original parts to reconstruct two crematoria ovens inside the building that had housed both the original crematorium and the original gas chamber. They wanted to allow people to enter the only standing building of a former gas chamber, as all the other gas chambers and crematories in Birkenau were ruins, and those ruins were kept as such.

Almost all visitors see both parts of the Memorial. They see exhibitions and learn many historical facts about the creation and functioning of the Auschwitz complex — including Birkenau. After this educational introduction, they have the unique opportunity to better understand what they learned by looking at the remains of Birkenau itself.

We are aware that the main exhibition was created by survivors in 1955. This is why one of the most important current projects of the Memorial is creating a new exhibition, which will not only tell the story of extermination and concentration camps from the perspective of victims but will also show the world of perpetrators and the place of Auschwitz among Nazi German state institutions. The three parts of the new exhibition should be open in 2021, 2023 and 2025, respectively.

Current Challenges

We also are aware that the Memorial’s infrastructure, which was originally set up decades ago to serve up to 500,000 people annually, is not equipped for the volume of visitors we receive today (in 2016, for instance, we received over two million visitors.) We understand that people who visit and spend long hours at the Memorial need some basic accommodations, such as a bookstore, restrooms, and even a small vending area. This is why we have already started the project of creating a completely new visitors center — importantly, outside the core historical area.

We are aware that tourists visit the Memorial, but from our perspective the Auschwitz Memorial is not a tourist attraction. First and foremost, it is a place where we commemorate the fate and life stories of the 1.3 million people deported there: 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and others. The visitors are told at the beginning of every guided tour that they are about to enter a cemetery-like site, and they should behave appropriately. Most people respect that.

The Memorial is also an important center of preservation. Our modern laboratories and conservation experts fight against time to save every single authentic remaining object— a toothbrush, a house key, a fragment of eyeglasses, a family photograph, an SS document, or the ruins of a gas chamber or a wooden barracks for prisoners (Tillett is again mistaken about the wooden barracks in Birkenau — they were not rebuilt, they are original.)

It’s also important to note that no other former German Nazi concentration camp or extermination center sites in Europe is in such authentic condition today, nor have any been so successfully preserved. The management at the Memorial can be so effective in our preservation efforts because of international consensus granted to us by the International Auschwitz Council, a consultative-advisory organ of the Polish Prime Minister’s office dedicated to preserving, maintaining and developing the site of Auschwitz and other Memorials located in today’s Poland. Its members include world-renowned authorities on the history of concentration camps and the Holocaust.

Education

The Auschwitz Memorial is also a place of education, with learning activities developed at the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which was created in 2005. Last year, we finally secured funding that will allow us to create a modern headquarters for the center, with lecture rooms and all necessary infrastructure to conduct more extensive education programs for people from around the world.

362 days a year, our 286 educators explain the difficult and sensitive history of Auschwitz and its victims in 17 languages. They help visitors coming from all around the world to understand this complicated topic using all the authentic objects and locations at hand. They walk through the historical sites, they use exhibitions, and, as a result, they keep the authentic stories of survivors alive by telling them to people.

Many visitors come to the Memorial prepared. Teachers and educational leaders understand the role of bringing their students to the historic site not only as a lesson of history but also one of civic education — as Auschwitz has been and will continue be a warning to humanity. But we also truly believe that many people who begin their visit as tourists later became messengers of remembrance, and that this happens thanks to experiencing the authenticity of the site as guided by educators. Visiting the former camp itself is a valuable personal experience which can teach and change people. The fact that visitors might initially attend the site as tourists does not change that.

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Can Auschwitz Be a Graveyard and a Tourist Destination?

krematorium-1-has-been-rebuilt-1484847651Menachem Rosensaft once wrote that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” He further notes that “the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.” As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we need to be vigilant.

Since my most recent visit to Auschwitz, in 2015, I have been particularly concerned that while its museum often uses the term “authentic experience,” visitors are exposed to a variety of nonauthentic experiences. To provide just a few examples, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the main gate is a reproduction; the Auschwitz I footprint actually extended into the current main parking lot and beyond; the gas chamber/crematorium (Krema I) usually shown at the end of the tour is a reproduction, and in Auschwitz II–Birkenau, the line of barracks (Section BIIA) upon entering to your right have been entirely rebuilt. To be fair, the guides will acknowledge this if asked, but the pressure of mass tourism means that they are rarely asked.

I have the utmost respect for the staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. They have an extraordinarily difficult job where literally every decision or official comment can quickly become controversial, yet they accept the challenge with grace, commitment and passion. The staff must navigate Polish politics, a huge increase in visitors severely straining the infrastructure and financial issues, and they must reconcile various stake-holder groups, each of whom have legitimate, though often conflicting, agendas.

But these convenient educational props can undermine their central aim if Holocaust deniers can accurately point to inconsistencies. And while the unprecedented growth in visitors to Auschwitz is in many ways a welcome development, that very surge is hastening the day when the museum’s senior staff, as well as foundation and council members, must decide if Auschwitz is simply an attraction to be checked off a tourist’s list or a sacred site as the location of the largest graveyard in the world created by the greatest crime in human history.

In his book “Dark Tourism and Crime,” Derek Dalton describes his fascination in Auschwitz from his teenage years, and the “lure” he felt to it. I am not Jewish, and have no family connections to the Shoah, but since I read a book on the prisoner uprising at Treblinka when I was 13, I’ve felt that same “lure.” My passionate interest in the Holocaust — and, in particular, Auschwitz — has led me to visit the camps on a number of occasions and study the history with more than touristic interest.

Auschwitz has come to represent the Holocaust for countless people like me worldwide, and that places a singular burden, responsibility and moral obligation on the museum. The victims and survivors unconditionally deserve historical accuracy in documenting the crimes, proper contextualization, absolute authenticity, respectful memorialization and the most up-to-date interpretations. But despite its best efforts, the museum is not succeeding in providing all this.

Historical accuracy is at times compromised by how various items are shown. The disturbing and powerful exhibition in Block Four with the hair of about 90,000 victims shown behind a long glass wall — along with similar displays of luggage and artificial limbs — do not make clear that the hair, limbs, and luggage were taken not there but at Birkenau. Also, the Gypsy-Roma experience predominantly unfolded in Birkenau Section BII, yet the excellent exhibit telling their story is in Auschwitz I. The critical historic importance of the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage as a security checkpoint, bookstore, theater, cafeteria and group tour staging area.

If the Auschwitz complex of camps is indeed a sacred place deserving solemnity, reverence and reflection, then the immediate area just outside the actual camp (Auschwitz I) falls far short in signaling to visitors they are about to step on consecrated ground. The dilapidated parking lot with a small white trailer as the main (and only) ticket office also houses an ice cream vendor and a souvenir shop before visitors reach a main entrance in a sad state of disrepair. Neither solemn memorial nor authentic representation, arrival at Auschwitz is now just a shabby trap for the masses of dark tourists. Frankly, the victims and survivors deserve better.

The last example is the least comprehensible, most disheartening and, frankly, shocking. The Auschwitz II – Birkenau gatehouse — the Gate of Death — is arguably the most widely recognized building in the world, an iconic manifestation of pure evil. But today, the gatehouse contains a bookstore, restrooms, a small vending area, a rundown guard tower and storage rooms. Does using the gatehouse this way properly memorialize the thousands upon thousands of starving, freezing, emaciated and terrorized prisoners in their paper-thin uniforms and ill-fitting wooden clogs who went through this gate in the morning knowing that there was a good chance they would not return? How can this be the best use of a horrifying historical building that welcomed some 1.1 million victims to this camp of death?

Can Auschwitz be both a tourist attraction and a mass graveyard without making compromises that betray the memory of the victims? The decision needs to be made soon.

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Populist who urged end to Nazi guilt can stay, German party rules

Local AfD party chairman Bjoern Hoecke called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial ‘a monument of shame’

FILES-GERMANY-POLITICS-HISTORY-HOLOCAUST-AFDBERLIN, Germany — German right-wing populist party AfD decided Monday not to expel a leading member over a speech criticizing Berlin’s Holocaust memorial and urging the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past.

The AfD executive board held a three-hour telephone conference in which it voted 10-3 to instead impose “disciplinary measures” against Bjoern Hoecke, party chairman in the central state of Thuringia, sources told German media.

Amid an internal power struggle ahead of a September general election, AfD leader Frauke Petry had called Hoecke a “burden on the party” last week after his address in which he condemned the sprawling Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”

“We need nothing less than a 180-degree shift in the politics of remembrance,” he added in the remarks Tuesday in Dresden to chants of “Germany, Germany.”

Hoecke’s comments met with an instant uproar, with Social Democrat vice chief Ralf Stegner accusing him of making a “hate incitement speech” — which is illegal in Germany — that called for history to be rewritten.

Germany’s Central Council of Jews also expressed outrage, saying Hoecke was trampling on the memory of six million Jewish Holocaust victims murdered by the Nazis.

But AfD deputy chief Alexander Gauland, who like Hoecke belongs to the hard nationalist wing of the party, defended the politician, telling national news agency DPA that he had “in no manner criticized the remembrance of the Holocaust.”

The AfD started out in 2013 as an anti-euro party, but has since morphed into an anti-immigration outfit railing against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy which brought some 890,000 refugees to Germany in 2015 alone.

The party, which also disputes the place of Islam in Germany, is polling nationwide at around 12 to 15 percent ahead of a general election on September 24.

A poll Sunday in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed that 61 percent of Germans believed Hoecke should be kicked out of the AfD for his speech.

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At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, a virtual encounter with a Syrian refugee

In ‘Genocide: The Threat Continues,’ visitors can sit down with asylum-seekers living in Berlin who have seen enough pain to last lifetimes

ushmm-portalWASHINGTON (JTA) – He’d rather talk to young women than answer my insistent line of questioning. He speaks in terms that make me feel like a Luddite, and when I bring up stuff he’d rather not talk about, out comes the smartphone.

Omar, a Syrian refugee passing time in a Berlin cafe, is not much older than my teenage son — and his mannerisms and conversational strategies make me feel, well, like a dad.

But he has seen enough grief to pack into several lifetimes, and the difference between Omar and the millennials and teenagers wandering through the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, on a recent Wednesday becomes evident when I ask him what was the best thing that happened to him this week.

“Nothing,” he answers, immediately. “Like, the news is coming always, too… I mean the last two weeks is really crazy, my aunt has died, there was an attack in Berlin, my friend had to go to the army, we don’t have water in Syria, we don’t have electricity but we have to say ‘thanks God’ because it just happens, we can do nothing.”

Omar — he only wants his first name used — appears to be in his late 20s. He’s participating in an exhibition at the museum, “Genocide: The Threat Continues,” and we’re conversing, face to face, via video chat. I’m in DC and he’s at the cafe in Germany’s capital.

Once a visitor traverses an exhibit covering genocides recent (Yugoslavia, Cambodia) and current (Syria), you reach the “portal.” It’s designed to look like a shipping container, replicating the makeshift shelters that have been built for refugees in Jordan and Kurdistan. Inside is a large video screen that allows you to see and chat with a refugee in real time.

The museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide describes the exhibit as part of its mission “to bring attention to the people and places at risk today for genocide and other mass atrocities.”

Visitors can make appointments using an online schedule, though many of the visitors are drop-ins.

I didn’t notify the museum, wanting to replicate as best I could the experience of an average visitor, so Omar at his bustling café is matched with me at random. Berlin’s refugees are mostly from Syria. There are other portals in Kurdistan, where refugees from areas in Iraq controlled by the Islamic State interact with visitors, and in Amman, where there are refugees from the fighting in Aleppo.

Admittedly, my question, “What is the best thing that happened to you during the past week?” is a bit moronic. But in my feeble defense, it’s also on a list that the museum and the company operating the temporary exhibit, Shared Studios, provides visitors entering the portal.

My immediate sense is an oxymoron — I feel both disjointedness and intimacy. Omar is right across from me in his dark, welcoming eatery, but he isn’t. I pose in front of the screen for a selfie (he begrudgingly agrees, extracting from me a solemn pledge not to share it), and in the image he stands beside me, frowning, like a glittering ghost.

I want to know more about Omar’s aunt; I know from loved ones dying far across an ocean. But I can’t press too hard because I don’t know this young man, who sports a goatee, a green sweater and a green cap. He’s already wary because I’m a reporter — and wary, I think, because I’m a reporter for a Jewish news agency.

But these simple lines of questions, I later learn, are kind of the point.

Cameron Hudson, the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, says the idea is for the museum visitor to transition from informed to emotionally involved.

“Certainly, the experience that we’ve had is to help people tell the story of what they fled, and why they fled, and what the experience was back in Iraq and Syria, so the sense we can take away is common humanity,” Hudson says in an interview the day after my visit. “That’s not a bad thing. It’s to shine a light on the human dimension of these genocidal conflicts.”

However, my profession has thrown off Omar. As much as I want to pretend I’m an American casually acquainted with the genocides now underway, professional courtesies mean I have to start by explaining who I am, what I do and for whom I work. He shares information about how he got to Berlin and where his family lives, but he asks me not to repeat that information. He casts his eyes down for much of the talk.

Our conversation has moments when he conveys the frustration of interacting with someone who Just. Does. Not. Get. It. But I think this is a product of our age gap.

“What do you do like about Berlin?” I ask.

“Syrian food, friends, shisha,” or waterpipe smoking, he answers.

“When was the last time you had shisha? Today? Last week?”

“No,” he says — and it’s in that response, followed by a chuckle, that I detect the impatience of the young for a hopelessly clueless elder. Not sure why it’s ridiculous to ask, I move on.

Berlin has a growing Jewish population, so I ask if he’s met Jews. Yes, he says. A man who tutors him in computer code is Jewish and “even speaks Arabic.”

“We are the same, but we have different religions,” Omar says, adding quickly, “I mean Jewish people, not the Israeli people.” Perhaps registering whatever expression flickers across my face across this electronic void, he corrects himself again.

“Even that, I don’t have a problem with both,” he says.

Is he aware of Germany’s history with the Jews? Yes, and for the second time, his voice becomes emotional, and I feel like we’ve connected.

“We visited the history museum here in Berlin, it was really interesting and a shock at the same time. We cannot imagine how they kill people that easy, you know,” he says. “We saw the way they killed them, in rooms, they closed the door, they opened the gas.”

And then, just as sure as we connected, he drifts away. He starts examining his phone. He’s developing an app, he tells me.

It’s time for me to go. A young woman who has signed on recently as a docent for the museum enters. Omar seems more interested in her.

“Where in New York are you from?” he asks her. Maybe he’ll exchange Facebook info with her, as he did with the women who preceded me.

Hudson loses patience with me a day later when I describe the interaction with Omar about the Holocaust, in the polite way activists for social change tell those of us less focused to, well, focus.

“It’s about shining a light on these crimes that have been committed in Syria and Iraq, and the human face of genocide in the world today,” he explains. “It’s in the Holocaust museum, but my mandate is to work on genocide where it is occurring.”

That’s true. What’s also true is I’m a bit of a Luddite in late middle age who cannot help but be unsettled by the experiences of the young man who is missing his family, thinking of his aunt, who has been unsettled by the scope of the inhumanity that occurred both in his home country and on the soil beneath the hardwood floors of the cafe where he now sits chatting with strangers.

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