WASHINGTON – The list of names, written in Arabic using a mixture of blood and rust, is unnerving but demands attention. The fact I’m looking at it in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum makes things all the stranger.
The phrase “They can’t be compared” is rendered redundant. If this exhibit is being shown at the Holocaust Museum, of course they should be compared. That’s exactly why it’s being shown in the heart of the American capital: so that we compare.
The very comparison is not easy for our digestive systems. The story of Syrian refugees, opponents of the regime who sacrificed their lives and wrote their names in blood, is situated just 5 meters (16 feet) away from a commemoration to Jewish wartime heroine Hannah Szenes. Do freedom fighters bear distinction? Can we even compare?
At the heart of the exhibit lie five scraps of fabric, each bearing at least 10 names, complete with phone numbers. They are faded, the blood-rust ink hard to read. The writing implement was a chicken bone. The title of the exhibition (in both English and Arabic) is “Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us.”
The inspiration behind the exhibition is Mansour Omari, 39, a Syrian journalist and human rights activist who was jailed in February 2012 and spent 18 months in secret government cells around Syria. It was at one of these places that his cellmates developed their idea of documentation: They cut themselves to help produce the “ink” and wrote the names of 82 prisoners – who had been jailed without documentation or any form of publicity – on pieces of cloth. They agreed that the first to be freed would smuggle the fabric out of prison and tell the families.
Omari was that person, and he smuggled the fabrics out by having them sewn onto the collar and lining of his shirt when he was freed. He later fled Syria and gave the scraps of cloth to the Holocaust Museum last August.
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Many of his former cellmates are no longer alive, he says.
Bodies lain out in a neat row
Syria’s civil war has lasted thus far for seven years and claimed some 500,000 lives. It’s estimated that 11 million people have been uprooted from their homes. Furthermore, President Bashar Assad’s regime is holding over 100,000 people prisoner: many are tortured; many are disappeared.
The museum exhibit also features photographs that originated on a smartphone and memory chip smuggled out of Syria by a former Syrian officer code-named “Caesar.” The images featured 55,000 photos of victims and other evidence of war crimes by the Assad regime. In July 2014, Caesar testified to Congress about the crimes he had witnessed.
Prisoners writing their names in blood and rust so they won’t be forgotten is part of a bigger story. The context for the exhibition, the refugees and opponents of the Assad regime creates a different experience from other parallel exhibits around the world. That context is a museum devoted to the mass murder of the Jews during World War II.
The Syria exhibit is on the museum’s second floor. To reach it, visitors pass a hall commemorating the Jewish resistance – at the center of which is the text about Szenes. The wall features quotes from Elie Wiesel and one from the Book of Genesis, about Cain and Abel. You turn right to get to the Syrian exhibit, but if you continue straight you reach the memorial hall: a large space with memorial candles arranged by the Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany.
The photographs of the Syrian victims are remarkably similar to those of Jewish Holocaust victims in the death camps: Bodies lying in long rows. Alongside the photos are detailed explanations, illustrations and maps, describing the development of the Syrian civil war.
These days, Omari lives in Sweden and fears for his life. The Syrian regime denies the testimonies shown in the exhibit and accuses him of spreading lies.
The same level of cruelty
Cameron Hudson, director of the museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, says this is one of the first times the museum has addressed an ongoing conflict.
The museum has been tracking the Syrian civil war for a long time, he says. Comparing the Holocaust in Europe to the tragedy in Syria is an obvious thing to do, Hudson adds, saying it shouldn’t raise eyebrows.
I ask if such an exhibit should be shown in other Holocaust museums. He considers the question and says not every Holocaust museum is an appropriate venue; it wouldn’t be right at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, for instance. But the message is clear: the Holocaust must not be allowed to recur and such events must be prevented in the future.
The Holocaust museum doesn’t exist only to tell the story of the dead, but to teach lessons for the future, Hudson explains, and the Syrian war is happening right now. There have also been other cases of genocide since World War II, he says.
Omari and his friends had no qualms about the exhibit appearing in the Holocaust museum, where the primary context is Jewish, Hudson says. They were desperate for the world to look and notice the tragedy still raging in Syria.
For them, the Holocaust museum is an excellent platform. Seven years after the war began, Syrians feel forgotten and need recognition and commemoration – and a major U.S. museum displaying evidence of the tragedy is acknowledgement by a national institution.
They deliberately draw connections between 1945 and 2018, Hudson says: The same crimes being committed then are being committed now – maybe not to the same extent, but with the same level of cruelty. So, yes, comparison is appropriate, he sums up, and they do so deliberately and with intention aforethought.
“The story the museum tells is universal, not just Jewish,” notes Hudson. Indeed, the power of the Syria exhibit lies in its telling a story with warning signs for human history.
“Every one of us should ask how he would have behaved in Europe during World War II,” Hudson says; there’s no difference if that question is being asked in Berlin in 1944 or Washington in 2018. The Syrian exhibit shows that we face the same choices every day – and when you take a stand, you’re making a choice, he says. These are the questions visitors to the museum should be asking, he believes.
He adds that 98 percent of the museum’s visitors aren’t actually Jewish.
Everybody dealing with the Holocaust says “Never again,” and if we want this to have real meaning, we have to take real steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The exhibit is one such step, Hudson says: its role is to sound the alarm. They also did the same regarding the genocide in Rwanda, he points out, and believes they will mount other exhibits – for instance, the recent genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
“Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us” does not stand alone, with other exhibitions worldwide showcasing the Syrian horrors. “Unpacked: Refugee Baggage” by the Syrian artist-architect Mohamad Hafez and Iraqi-born writer Ahmed Badr was recently at UNICEF in New York. It featured recreations in miniature of “rooms, homes, buildings and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war,” as the artist put it. Hafez has lived in the United States for 10 years and works as an architect in New Haven.
In another example, in late 2017 London’s Old Truman Brewery exhibited pictures drawn by Syrian children, all of whose families had fled the civil war. Exhibits of photographs of Syrian refugees have been shown in Brussels, Boston and elsewhere. An exhibition called “Haneen” (“Longing”) is also being shown in Beirut, depicting artists’ interpretations of poems written by Syrian children.
In New York between October 2016 and January 2017, finally, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” which “explored the ways in which contemporary architecture and design have addressed notions of shelter in light of global refugee emergencies.” The exhibition was part of a series of MOMA projects called “Citizens and Borders.”