The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993 in Washington has the words of Elie Wiesel carved in stone at its entrance: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and prolific author who died July 2 at the age of 87, was passionate about helping people not only remember atrocities but to take responsibility for them by making sure evil does not get the upper hand again.
He did this not only with his writings — most famously through “Night” — the autobiographical account of his time in concentration camps as a teenager — but also through helping found the Holocaust museum , which he envisioned as a “living memorial” to serve as a warning about the fragility of democracy and the dangers of unchecked hatred.
When the museum opened 23 years ago, Catholic News Service reported:
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum not only recounts the deaths of millions of victims of World War II, but it presents a lesson for all people, according to Jewish and Catholic leaders.
“It tells a crucial story, summing up the underside of the 20th century,” said Eugene J. Fisher, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He called the new museum’s role “extremely important” in “helping all Christians remember what can happen if we’re not extremely vigilant.”
The museum, near all the other museums along the National Mall, deserves to be visited, and perhaps Wiesel’s death is a poignant reminder of that.
I had the chance to tour it before it officially opened and wrote this for CNS:
Once inside the museum, the visitor has stepped into another world. And for the few hours it takes to see the entire exhibit, that world closes in. There are no hallways where one can escape; no opportunity to go back and forth among displays. The museum is designed to make one feel pushed along, almost forced, as were the concentration camp prisoners.
Amid the discomfort, there is also a connection with the persecuted. Visitors are immediately given a computerized identity card of a Holocaust victim who matches their own age and sex. The card includes a short biography which is updated at stations along the exhibit’s route. Only at the end does one learn the fate of the person on the card.
Other displays also depict the humanity of each Holocaust victim. There is a case of rusted silverware, umbrellas, hair brushes, scissors and kitchen utensils taken from inmates upon their arrival at a camp.
Even more disturbing is a display of 4,000 shoes, browned with age and smelling of dust — taken from prisoners before their deaths.
Nothing prepares the visitor for this scene. It comes up suddenly, around a corner, and speaks of the senseless killings of men, women and children, none of whom knew what would happen that day when they buckled their sandals or slipped on their loafers.
Through each exhibit the dark museum with its grey walls not only tells the story of the Jews, but it speaks of all who were victims of the Nazi regime, including persons with disabilities, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Catholics.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum also has something to say about continued atrocities and genocide.
Servite Father John T. Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, who served on the museum’s board wrote in a July 3 commentary for the Crux website: “We must continue to mourn the victims of genocide and terror attacks, as well as the killing of so many in our urban areas. Otherwise such human destruction can easily become the ‘new normal.'”
In this way the museum’s role becomes two-fold — looking back and forward.
That’s exactly what Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said when the museum opened.
The rabbi, who died in 2009, said at the time that Holocaust museum is a “testimony of the evil potential of what humans can do to other humans” with a particularly important lesson at the time with what was happening in former Yugoslavia.
“We must be aware of the ever present presence of diabolical evil” and “we must be alert and fight” against it, he said.
But he also said the horror of the Holocaust is not completely dark. “Beyond tears it manifests the strength of the human spirit that comes out of a relationship with God.”
It recounts “people saying ‘yes’ to God despite everything,” he said, which is something Wiesel also touched upon.
In a 2013 interview he said: “I believe in humanity against humanity, I believe in God against God, because what else do I have? ”
And in a 1997 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Wiesel wrote that his relationship with God had been difficult he never lost faith “not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life.”