Robert Fulford's column about Holocaust museums

(Globe and Mail, February 25, 1998)

Shortly after the Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, in 1993, groups of visitors began reciting the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. This surprised and alarmed the museum management. The U.S. constitution clearly separates church from state, and the museum is a government institution, created by Congress. So the managers reacted in the only way they knew. Elaine Gurian, who was then deputy director, remarked recently, "I am embarrassed to say that we stopped people from saying the kaddish."

Those in charge of the museum soon changed their minds, but the incident showed that in the beginning they didn't quite understand what they had built. For years they had been preparing it, brilliantly, and it's now considered the world standard for didactic museums. Yet even the people who made it had trouble grasping a key fact: when you build a Holocaust museum you also build a temple. Automatically, the space becomes sacred as well as educational. Furthermore, the emotions it arouses will be unpredictable. The Holocaust is a unique historic event that no one should approach without the greatest care. It's an unstable element in the chemistry of modern thought, its nature changing from year to year and place to place. It is one thing in Amsterdam, another in New York, another in Jerusalem--and of course still another in Berlin, where the Germans will soon build an ambitious Holocaust memorial, the first major monument ever erected by a nation to commemorate its own shame.

New Holocaust controversies continually erupt, and Washington has one now: six eminent Jewish Conservatives have written to the museum to complain that its film on the origins of anti-Semitism inaccurately and unfairly blames Christianity. In the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier called that letter "an ignorant and indecent document." Whatever the outcome of this particular argument, his words demonstrate the furies that this issue can still unleash, more than half a century after Allied soldiers arrived at the gates of the Nazi death factories.

In Canada, everyone now understands that the proposal to put a Holocaust Memorial into the War Museum in Ottawa was a blunder, but do the people involved with it realize that this controversy was only the first of many quarrels that will inevitably accompany the creation of such a memorial? Do they understand that making a national museum of the Holocaust requires not only great talent, imagination and patience but also unusual political will? A superb book, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, by James Young of the University of Massachusetts, explores the subtleties of this subject. He says that "Every nation remembers events according to its own ideals, and there is always something that is a little self-aggrandizing about it": you commemorate the tragedy but you also commemorate your own sensitivity and understanding.

Young says no Holocaust memorial has been created without intense public argument--and that's a good thing. Controversy, even if painful, provides a way for countries and cities to discover and articulate their relationship to the Holocaust. Ideally, a Canadian approach will emerge through public discussion and the museum will take shape around that approach. If something of this kind doesn't happen, the result will be lifeless--as lifeless, one might say, as the present War Museum, which I believe is unknown to most people who visit Ottawa.

The idea of including the Holocaust memorial in a renovated War Museum was born among the museum bureaucrats in Ottawa three years ago and tested in surveys of visitors. People responding to the surveys liked the idea, and so did George MacDonald, the president of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which oversees the War Museum. "It is going to be a very exciting area of museology," MacDonald has said, perhaps thinking of Washington. But Canadian war veterans, at recent senate hearings, made it plain they thought the museum they consider their own was being invaded; they feared that their own accomplishments would be overshadowed. This caused "ill feeling," to quote Barney Danson, a Trudeau-era cabinet minister and a Jewish veteran of the Second World War, who has been asked by the government to help sort it all out. Jewish organizations had a right to feel particularly aggrieved. It wasn't their idea, and in return for co-operating with the museum they were made to appear usurpers.

It's still not easy to know precisely what a Holocaust museum should convey. It must certainly explore the tragedy of the victims, Jews and others, but it must also go some distance toward uncovering the motives and methods of the perpetrators. (On April 1, 1933, Joseph Goebbels, drunk with happiness over his first anti-Jewish boycott, wrote in his diary: "In the end the world will learn to understand us." If only we could.) Or should the museum focus on the Holocaust's permanent result, the wiping out of a 1,000-year-old European Jewish civilization?

Whatever emerges, it won't fit comfortably into anyone's philosophy. Michael Berenbaum, who helped create the Washington museum, recalls a major struggle: "People wanted a happy ending." That was the worst pressure the planners confronted, the pressure to express false optimism. They resisted, and "thus cut against the American myth. The Holocaust is not a story that affirms the goodness of people."

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