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In some ways, Germany’s Auschwitz death camp in Poland is personal for me.
No, I’m not Jewish. No members of my family were murdered there in the Holocaust.
But while doing the reporting for a Holocaust-related book I co-authored with a rabbi, I spent time at Auschwitz. (And at the Majdanek and Treblinka extermination camps.) I have stared at the machinery of death there, the gas chambers, the crematoriums, the piles of human hair scissored off victims.
More: I’m half German. I have tried to get the few relatives with my last name whom I’ve contacted in Germany to tell me what family members did in World War II. Were they Nazis? Resisters? Guilty bystanders?
Or, more likely, all of the above. As Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself:” “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / I am large, I contain multitudes.”
So far I know only that three men with my last name died in German uniform in World War II.
So it’s with both anticipation and a bit of dread that I look forward to experiencing the “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” exhibit that opens June 14 at Union Station, sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and Union Station. (Disclosure: I serve on the volunteer Council of Advocates of the Midwest Center.)
The exhibit will give me an opportunity to fill in gaps in my Holocaust knowledge, but also a chance to ask myself again what I should be doing to resist and demolish the kind of hatred that led to the murder of some 6 million Jews and millions of others at the hands of Hitler’s Nazi killing machine.
When I spoke recently to Jessica Rockhold, the Midwest Center’s executive director, she put it this way: “One of the lessons that we’re trying to promote … is that it’s important not just to know the facts but to translate them into a deeper understanding and then empathy for what the people went through and what these lessons can mean in our contemporary world.”
As she pointed out, the world isn’t done with genocide: “Despite the well-meant claim of ‘never again,’ that hasn’t been the case … It’s now our job to learn from something like the Holocaust that this is inherently possible. Humans do this to each other. And now we have to take responsibility for not just accumulating knowledge but translating that into the will to intervene and act where it’s appropriate.”
But we shouldn’t imagine doing that will be easy.
One of the people who will be part of the related speakers’ series with the exhibit, Andrew Bergerson, who teaches history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, emphasized that very point when we talked about the coming exhibit recently. Racism and antisemitism, he said, “are not fixed by telling someone the facts. So life is a lot more complicated than just saying we’re the truth tellers and they’re the lie tellers. I certainly believe in correcting falsehoods. And that’s what exhibits like this can do. But we should not imagine that that alone is somehow going to protect us.”
And yet, he said, there is real value in such historical exhibits.
“The authenticity that’s associated with museum objects provides a certain undeniability to these events,” Bergersom said. “That is one of the intents of the exhibit and I certainly would want my students and the wider public to experience that. We’re studying the Holocaust not just to combat antisemitism but to combat any racial or other prejudice.” Besides, he pointed out, “we have to remember that there still are certain people who are Holocaust deniers.”
What Rockhold called “the authenticity of these artifacts” in the exhibit should help challenge such deniers because “this is evidence that was produced and amassed by the Nazis themselves and it corroborates what the survivors tell us and what we read in the history books.”
So, yes, historical truth-telling is an important reason for these kinds of exhibits. But there’s more, as Rockhold noted: “I would like to think that because Kansas City has its own tension with a racial past that it would be an opportunity for some reflection about what in our community can be better.”
Kansas City, in fact, has both a racial past and an antisemitic past. And a present that still is sometimes marred by both individual bigotry and systems that function to crush certain groups of people simply for who they are. So it’s vital that as many people as possible see what Rockhold calls “truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
But it also will be important for those who attend to imagine what they are supposed to do because of having seen it.
Bergerson describes the goal this way: “What we’re shooting for is not bystanders but allies for people when minorities are being oppressed.”
So I will take my half-German, half-Swedish, fully American self to see the Auschwitz exhibit and will try to be intentional afterward about what I might do to contribute to a world in which death camps and genocide are simply unimaginable. May such a world not be long coming.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His new book, “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety,” was published in January. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.