A searing message wasted on the young Or maybe not

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance lies on one of the few actual hills above Beverly Hills. Its peach-colored rotunda peaks above surrounding elm and maple trees; inside the building, the smog, heat and noise of Los Angeles seem far away.

But the museum’s many relics of wickedness, on display behind glass cases, take a powerful toll all by themselves.

I visited the museum for the first time on a recent trip to L.A. Though I had lived in the city all my life, I never made it to the Museum of Tolerance until I came back as a tourist.

The collection is on display in two or three rooms, and passing into them is like blithely walking into a torture chamber.

For all the World War II flicks I’ve seen, for all the incessant media memorializing of those dark days, I was not prepared to see a real Nazi uniform, neatly pressed and perfectly preserved.

Who wore it? I wondered. That luger. Who fired it, and at whom?

Those Nazi posters featuring grotesque Jewish caricatures actually hung on German kiosks. Real German children read those viciously anti-Semitic textbooks. That Nazi flag flew somewhere over the Third Reich.

I felt my life threatened.

There was more. Canisters of zyklon-B gas, blackened bricks from crematoria, a chess set made by Auschwitz inmates, a bunk-bed frame that slept 16.

Each object had its own mute resonance of pain.

Most electrifying for me, a display of yellow cloth Stars of David, some embroidered with the word Jude. These were some of the very badges that identified Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.

I found myself wanting to wear one. Like the gay activists who claim for themselves the pink triangle, once a hated Nazi insignia forced on European gays, I wanted to claim the yellow badge. To convert a symbol of shame and death into one of pride and defiance.

Just at that moment, several groups of giggling students bounded into the room, shattering my somber meditations.

They had come to the museum on a field trip. These were not Jewish kids from Chabad. These were mostly Hispanic, Asian and African American teens, few of whom likely knew much about the war and the Holocaust.

Tour guides vainly tried to corral their charges, their voices straining to be heard above the distracted murmuring. Some kids, to their credit, listened, seeming to grasp the import. Most flitted about the displays, paying no attention.

Instead, they joked and snickered among themselves, oblivious to the horrors on display around them.

Their manic presence in this solemn place annoyed me. I wanted to scream at them. But that would have brought no deeper understanding to the kids.

The point of this museum is to educate. Yet as my experience showed, the manner in which the museum presents Holocaust history is flawed.

It’s the education equivalent of factory farming.

Rather than cram in busloads of kids like a Disneyland ride, why not bring in smaller groups of four or five? Or two? Instead of guides barely older than the kids they shepherd, why not older men and women who remember what happened? How about Holocaust survivors taking each child by the hand, approaching the bunk bed and whispering, “I slept on a bed like that in Bergen-Belsen.”

True, it’s less efficient. Fewer kids will receive the lesson. But for those who do, the experience will sear their souls.

Suddenly, I noticed I was running late and had to get going. I drove off into the smog-stung afternoon.

Later I thought maybe it was fine that most of the kids laughed and flitted. That is the birthright of children, to live a life free of the kind of terror that snuffed out a generation 60 years ago.

For me, the Holocaust has tissue-level meaning; for most of those kids, the Holocaust likely has tissue-thin meaning.

But I couldn’t stay annoyed at them. All of us must eventually leave the artifacts behind and live our lives in the present.

Perhaps those boisterous kids will return to the museum someday. Older, wiser, a little more weather-beaten, they may then contemplate the detritus of genocide, and be rendered speechless.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.