The Role of the Holocaust Museum

It's difficult to escape the grating fear that in the framework of the illusion of a collective memory of humankind, the breach in the barrier of repression of the past is liable to lead to the injustice of denial and forgetfulness.

Mike Murphy, a judge in Florida's Orange County, issued an original ruling two weeks ago in response to an accusation that an area resident made anti-Semitic comments to a Jewish woman walking with her children in Maitland, Florida. The judge sentenced the accused to 50 hours' community service or a visit to one of three Holocaust museums: one located in the Jewish center where she lives; one in St. Petersburg, Florida; or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The sentence, which exposed the existence of popular anti-Semitism in the United States, also emphasized the high level of awareness there regarding the educational task of Holocaust museums. In the U.S. alone, there are about 30 Holocaust museums, and if you add exhibits in community centers, schools and Jewish museums not dedicated to the Holocaust, the number of Holocaust exhibits rises to at least 100.

This week American media outlets reported a significant increase in organized visits by students from around the country to Washington, which is recovering from the fall in domestic tourism that began after September 11, 2001. The media reports highlighted the educational importance of visiting the Holocaust museum in the capital, alongside meeting Congressmen and touring American historic sites.

The Holocaust museum in Washington plays a central role in education and in forming the collective memory of American citizens. According to museum statistics, some 22 million people, 80 percent of whom are not Jewish, have visited the museum since it opened in April 1993. One-third of the visitors are students. In remarks by politicians and educators regarding the content and purpose of the museum, memorializing the Holocaust is regarded as something of a national American mission, the obligation of a superpower that sees itself as responsible for preserving the moral character of the world.

However, the burgeoning number of American memorial sites and museums that deal with the Holocaust is not the only thing the U.S. has bequeathed. Nowadays there is almost no country in Europe that does not have at least one major museum dealing with the Holocaust, in addition to memorial and study sites.

For years, the museum located in the Amsterdam house where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis was just about the only site in Europe that depicted the Holocaust in a museum-like manner, although it showed a callous attempt to minimize the Jewish perspective of the Holocaust and concentrate on the universal lesson.

Until the end of the 1980s, the Auschwitz museum, which was under Communist control in Poland, completely ignored the Jewish aspects of the concentration camp. Poland emphasized communism's heroic opposition to Nazism and hid the extermination industry that put the Jews in gas chambers at the edge of the railroad track to Birkenau, next to Auschwitz.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War led to an outburst of emotion and exposure of European memory and guilt feelings that had been repressed and occasionally denied. In Berlin alone, the visual manifestation of memory was upgraded slowly and under criticism, accompanied by disputes and protests, but in the end was displayed in three ways. It started in the early 1990s with the transformation of a villa on the coast of the lake in Wannsee into a museum commemorating the January 1942 discussions between the political and military leaders on the Final Solution.

In September 2001 the monumental Jewish museum in Berlin opened, giving a fuller expression to the Holocaust. Daniel Libeskind's architecture served to highlight the Holocaust, but this was done in a broad way, including descriptions of the magnificent past of German Jewry. Only this year, after a decade of vociferous debates, was a memorial site to the Holocaust dedicated in Berlin that deals entirely with the intended extermination of the Jews.

In every place in Europe where a museum has opened, one can study and analyze the illusions and the twists and turns of the path that memory has made, as well as examine changes in content and message. Today there is clearly an emphasis on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, a recognition of the link between anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and awareness of the centrality of the Jewish martyrs.

In the wake of the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which took place at the concentration camp in January with the participation of world leaders, after the exhibition at the United Nations that commemorated the Holocaust for the first time and after the international presence at the dedication of the new Yad Vashem museum, there is concern that human memory may have reached its saturation point.

Psychologists may point to the link between lifting the repression from the memory of the Holocaust and the occurrence of classic anti-Semitism in Europe, which in its present form focuses on the Jews of Israel. It's difficult to escape the grating fear that in the framework of the illusion of a collective memory of humankind, the breach in the barrier of repression of the past is liable to lead to the injustice of denial and forgetfulness.