June 16, 2007

The Holocaust Museum and the Beginning of Travels

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The HIA program has been in D.C. for the past few days, and everyone is thoroughly exhausted but still having a good time. We spent the last two days visiting the Holocaust Museum (a comprehensive floor by floor tour), and then meeting with the museum’s directors to discuss our impressions. The subject matter is utterly brutal to process, and it is emotionally draining to spend nine hours each day viewing and discussing the massive violence done to Jews during the Holocaust. Although the exhibits were purposefully made palatable to people of all ages, poignant photographs and videos of death camps and ghettoes still grind against any visitor’s conscience. Even the atmosphere is eerie, exuding the sense of a dead-somber haunted house. The directors mentioned that the entire museum is strategically lit in order to recreate the dim lighting found within the barracks of concentration camps.

After three floors of dim-lighting, reality-sized cattle cars, sacks full of Zyklon B, and other grisly reminders of concentration camps, one emerges into the sanctuary. The sanctuary is a beautifully lit, circular room made of marble, with yahrzeit candles ringing the room’s outer walls. As soon as I stepped into the room, a poem written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht raced through my mind. It had been stamped large on one of the exhibit’s walls, and was on the subject of receiving an American visa during the Holocaust. At the time, the United States had strategically offered asylum to famous European intellectuals, believing that they could contribute positively to American academia. The poem went as follows:

I know of course; it’s simply luck
That I’ve survived so many friends
But last night in a dream
I heard those friends say of me:
“Survival of the fittest”
And I hated myself.

The poem caused me to reflect on my privilege as an American of the upper middle class. We do nothing to land our space in society; it is simply a role of the genetic dice, and I could not help but hate myself for the privileges with which I had been born. I just as easily could have been raised in Darfur, Kosovo, or Kigali, but I was raised in Pittsburgh, and have endured no great tragedy in my life. For this I am thankful, yet I still feel compelled to stay in touch with the greatest sources of rage and misery in our society. They challenge us constantly to take action on behalf of others, and without them, we have lost touch with the lives of many across the world.