The Column: Does the Holocaust belong to everyone

I’m not sure why I go to Holocaust museums. It’s not to amass more facts and figures about the Nazis’ extermination campaign against the Jews — there’s always more to learn, but that’s not why I go. It’s not to cry, or to cry out, although I’ve done both. It’s not to feel closer to the Jewish people — I’m pretty much involved with the Jewish people 24/7 already.

I suppose I go because how could I not? Call it an unbidden act of psychic solidarity.

So when I heard about a Yom HaShoah talk on Holocaust museums — “Museums and the Remaking of Holocaust Memory” — of course I went. How could I not?

The discussion at the JCC of San Francisco turned on the question of who owns the Holocaust. More precisely, who owns the memory of the Holocaust? Is it the awful property of the Jewish people, its lessons circumscribed by the particularities? Or is it part of human history, with universal lessons to teach?

New York Times cultural critic-at-large Edward Rothstein spoke forcefully about the unique Jewish connection to the Holocaust, which he believes should not be diluted by a politically correct impulse to universalize what is more properly left as the particular.

Holding up the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles as an example, Rothstein lambasted its focus on hate crimes and bullying, “as if there’s no difference between bullying and Buchenwald.”

“It’s as if the Jewish story of the Holocaust can’t stand on its own,” he complained. “It has to be generalized and universalized before it can be urged on others. A Holocaust museum in the United States can’t be ‘too Jewish.’ ”

The first Holocaust museums were built in Israel, he pointed out, where they serve a historic and national purpose. But outside Israel, where they aim to draw non-Jewish audiences (and funding), Holocaust museums have taken on a tone that he finds unfortunate, even dangerous.

If the Holocaust can mean everything, he said, then anything can be a Holocaust. Then there is no special, horrible significance to the Nazi campaign against the Jews. Then the Jews themselves, through their Israeli avatars, can be accused of imposing another holocaust of their own on the Palestinians. This twisted analogy is already a weapon in anti-Israeli hands, he noted, and Holocaust museums should not play into it.

“The Holocaust is specific,” Rothstein said, “and its lesson shouldn’t be universalized and watered down.”

In 1979, I was traveling through Poland and decided to take a young non-Jewish Polish friend to Auschwitz. I wanted him to know, and I wanted to be the one to tell him — for me, in that place, the Holocaust museum had national, Zionist import.

Auschwitz was not yet the tourist draw it has since become. It was badly curated; each category of people murdered was given its own building and exhibit, with descriptions written in that people’s native tongue.

The Jewish exhibit was in Hebrew, a language no Pole could read. I translated for my friend in a loud voice until the security guard told me to stop. I felt self-righteous. I was 21.

Countering Rothstein at the JCC was Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, a non-Jewish Brit who was so affected by his first encounter with Israel and Yad Vashem that he founded England’s first Holocaust Centre and made a career of helping present the Shoah to a wide audience. Smith spoke of how the memory of the Holocaust belongs to humanity as an eternal warning against hatred and racist violence.

Today there are more than 300 Holocaust museums and other institutions around the world. The United States has 16 major museums, along with many more local ones. What is it they should be doing?

Nothing can match the impact of seeing Auschwitz or Dachau, standing in the barracks, looking at the piles of shoes and eyeglasses and feeling the presence — or, more correctly, the agony of the absence — of the millions who suffered and died in that place, on that land. A museum elsewhere cannot have that visceral power; it must offer something different, something that speaks to why it was built in Chicago or Miami or Los Angeles.

Can a Holocaust museum in the United States be “only” about the Jews, and risk losing visitors? Or must it touch upon the Jewish story as part of a greater cautionary tale, and risk losing its soul?

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].