TAINAN, Taiwan – The rooms that house Pastor Alex Cho’s collection of Holocaust artifacts, Judaica and photographs are stuffy in the September heat. With the museum closed to the general public due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is no need to keep the air conditioning running during the day.
Inside the Taiwan Holocaust Peace Memorial – Cho calls it the “smallest Holocaust museum in the world” – which sits on the second floor of the stunning, white Che Lu Chien church in this southern Taiwan city, Cho points out the precious artifacts he and his father Joe (who died in 2018) spent decades collecting.
“The main thing is, the Christians come from Jews. They are our source, our roots,” Cho says. “[Taiwanese] don’t know about Israel. All they know is what’s in the newspapers and in books: that Jews are smart and they can make money,” he adds. These stereotypes are common in Taiwan as well as in China and South Korea, though generally not based in the same antisemitism as in the West.
Cho’s goal is to teach Taiwanese people, and particularly Christians, about the Holocaust beyond the walls of the museum. It’s a mission Cho and his father have been carrying out since the 1990s.
“We want to educate, not to have a big show or an exhibition. We go to universities, or high schools, or churches, to teach them: What is the Holocaust? The main thing is, we have to be fair to each race,” he said.
As an issue geographically far from Taiwan, most locals learn little about the Holocaust in school, at the most watching movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” or Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.” At times, the lack of awareness has led to events that make international news headlines, like in 2016 when a Taiwanese school hosted a “Nazi rally.” Analysts say the incidents can be explained by a lack of historical and cultural context.
The museum itself opened in 2002, and its collection of artifacts is impressive. Among handmade Judaica and centuries-old pottery excavated from the land of Israel, there is also a handwritten Hebrew scroll written by an Auschwitz camp victim, original Nazi badges, Otto Frank’s tie and one of the Frank family’s menorahs. This was donated to Cho’s father by Frank himself after the two met in Japan. The rest of his collection is stored in the church’s basement, crates and crates full of panels and photos printed on canvas.
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Cho points to a stack of new paintings by an artist from China that he hopes to display in traveling exhibitions once the coronavirus pandemic allows for larger gatherings. One depicts a vision of a new Third Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, another the fall of the Second Temple.
“In 70 A.D., it was destroyed by the Romans. If Taiwan was destroyed, we should learn from Israel, because they didn’t protect their temple but now they have rebuilt their country,” Cho says.
‘Confronting and understanding’
In the past several years, conversations in Taiwan have increasingly focused on how it should remember and portray its own past. In 2018, President Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party mobilized a transitional justice commission, tasked with reviewing human rights abuses committed by the Kuomintang government during its martial law period from 1949 to 1987 – also known as the White Terror. At least 1,200 people were executed and tens of thousands more imprisoned (many without trial) during that time for expressing opposition to the government.
The commission has looked to museums around the world, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, as models for its own memorial parks and museums. It has tried, too, to expand international involvement in human rights initiatives, which most recently included joining the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to promote preservation of its historical site.
Taiwan has held public events for Holocaust Remembrance Day since 2015. The events are attended by leaders of the small local Jewish communities, political representatives from Israel and Germany, and national political leaders. This year, for the first time, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy co-hosted the event, while much of President Tsai’s speech was focused on transitional justice in Taiwan.
“The scars of the Holocaust continue to remind us of our responsibility to ensure such a tragedy never happens again. For us in Taiwan, this responsibility starts with confronting and understanding Taiwan’s authoritarian past,” she said.
Cho says the Taiwanese government has, in fact, offered to financially support his nonprofit, money which he acknowledges could help expand educational programs and greatly benefit during the ongoing hardships brought by the pandemic. He hasn’t hosted an in-person lecture or educational event in almost two years, and groups have rarely been accepted for museum tours due to virus fears and low staffing capability. Yet he turned the money down.
“They wanted me to teach about 228,” he says, referring to the February 28, 1947, anti-government uprising that ended in an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 deaths and marked the beginning of the White Terror. But “ was not a genocide. It’s not the same thing,” he said. “We didn’t want to have any political barriers. We are a church.”
Frank Wang, who sits on the transitional justice commission and works with White Terror victims, acknowledged those differences and the unique challenges that Taiwan faces.
“There are some similarities, but there is also some uniqueness in Taiwan,” he said. “The Kuomintang is still a very important oppositional party. So it’s not like in Germany, [where] there is a consensus about Hitler’s crimes. So far, even how we evaluate Chiang Kai-Shek is very controversial.” Taiwan’s first president and the man responsible for the atrocities of the White Terror period, Chiang Kai-Shek is still memorialized with a large bronze statue and memorial park that the commission hopes to rebrand.
Ian Rowen, an assistant professor of social science at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has written about how transitional justice can function as a tool by contested democracies to pursue legitimacy. He said comparisons between Taiwan’s White Terror and the Holocaust were a stretch, though their significance to their respective states are comparable.
“These episodes of extreme suffering form foundational narratives for the modern nation of Israel, and increasingly so for Taiwan,” he said. “And that’s not to say that their traumas are any less present or powerful, but that they can be retooled to legitimate broader forms of statecraft.”
Rowen’s point is consistent with Taiwan’s tendency to view itself as an Asian mirror of Israel. Both are contested states who consider themselves to be democratically advanced in their respective regions, surrounded by unfriendly neighbors. On social media and in editorials on Taiwanese news sites, many Taiwanese often wonder why Taiwan can’t be more like Israel, with its strong military and close relations with the United States, despite the many geopolitical differences that would make that incredibly difficult or impossible.
The People’s Republic of China claims Taiwan as its territory and has threatened to “unify” by force, though it has never governed Taiwan. In recent months, international challenges to Beijing’s claimed sovereignty over Taiwan have led to mounting tensions across the strait.
Cho’s primary audience is Taiwanese Christians, but the nonreligious who occasionally find their way to his museum or lectures tend to be those curious about Israel. He stresses that he avoids politics, but still believes Taiwanese can learn something from the Jewish experience.
“I don’t preach Taiwan independence,” Cho says, “but [Taiwanese people] still don’t know very clearly why the Jews can live so long [as a community], and how after so many exiles, they can still come back to Israel. So we want to let the Taiwanese know why they can survive, and why Israel became a country again.”