US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Dedication: Standing in the Presence of History

San Francisco Bay Times

by David M. Fetterman

All of us who stood in the rain that day were a part of history: speakers, prominent dignitaries, and each member of the audience. The symbolism of Chaim Herzog's presence was clear—as president of Israel he represented a country expressly devoted to championing the rights of and providing refuge for Jews. The irony of Lech Walesa's presence was also clear, coming only a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprisings.

It was cold and wet, fitting that dark period in modem civilization, but no one moved during the dedication. The speakers stirred emotions ranging from sorrow to defiance. Questions I had posed as a child were echoed by the crowd: How could this have happened? How can there be a God if such things are possible? How could so many people have turned away knowing what they knew about unspeakable atrocities, such indecencies of the hand and the heart? These were the questions that were raised on that day, questions I never expected to hear raised in Washington, DC. But that bastion of politics and power is precisely where these questions belonged. As President Clinton said, "The Holocaust reminds us forever that knowledge divorced from values can only serve to deepen the human nightmare, that a head without a heart is not humanity." There was no better place for such a reminder than in our capital and at this time in history when racial and ethnic hatred are proliferating worldwide, including ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, racial segregation and violence in South Africa, as well as the oppression of the Kurds in Iraq and the Baha'I in Iran.

There were also feelings of rage while we listened to survivors and liberators describe what they had seen and experienced. The now familiar cry "never again" swelled in my heart, that pledge of strength and survival choking me with emotion. The Jewish Defense League also played a role, literally providing a backdrop for this event.

Protesters with signs stating that the Holocaust had never happened were an unreal sight—but I stared at their faces and they did not look like the lunatic fringe. They reminded me that it could happen again—both with misguided, disturbed people and with ordinary, good people who fail to speak out because they are too busy or too afraid to step out of their protected little worlds. The question keeps recurring: How could so many people and so many countries have allowed this to continue when they knew what was happening? And Elie Wiesel's question—why did no one bomb the railroad tracks to stop the horror—still haunts me today. But I could see how it begins: dismissing the cranks because they are so small, disorganized, and obviously crazy; then failing to fight subtle and not-so-subtle biases and bigotry in our own hearts—dehumanizing groups that we consider something less than ourselves because they are different.

When I finally forced my eyes from the parade of speakers, each more riveting than the last, I noticed how many gay and lesbian couples were gathered there, listening and watching. Many had come to the city to participate in the gay and lesbian rally later that weekend. But many were there for the same reason I was. We listened to every word, every nuance and intonation. We held on to every word as if it were precious and holy. It seemed right that there were so many gay couples present: as one speaker pointed out, the Nazis found it frighteningly easy to start the horrible process with homosexuals because they were different, outcasts, social deviants. They were already treated in a dehumanizing manner, making it easier to dismiss and destroy them. Their presence was a gentle reminder that we all need to guard against societally condoned bigotries.

As the survivors spoke, I thought of my own family and friends. I thought about the devastation I felt while researching my family tree when I found that an entire line had been wiped out in a few years by the Nazis' systematic genocide. The scale of it is difficult to comprehend, even when it touches your own family. I also thought about all the survivors I have met throughout my life. I remember as a child, leaning over and asking my mother in synagogue what the numbers meant— the numbers tattooed on the arm of the woman sitting next to me. I remembered the stones told night after night by survivors on a kibbutz in Israel. They were not proud stones: many survivors were ashamed of what they had to do to survive—but they lived. One survivor spoke about how he was lined up with his brother in front of a mass grave. The two boys were told they could stay alive if they would be scavengers and take valuables off the dead bodies for the Nazis. The brother refused and was shot; my kibbutz friend did what he had to do to survive. Another survivor tried to help me understand why so few fought back. He told me how one Nazi would leave an empty rifle within reach of naked prisoners standing in line en route to the gas chambers. Inevitably someone would grab the rifle and try to shoot the Nazis. They would take the rifle away and tell the victim that he or she was responsible for seeing everyone else in line shot to death first because of that one action. These mental games did not compare with the insidious acts of physical cruelty and torture, of disfigurement and destruction. When Edward R. Murrow said, "If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least sorry," I understood, and I believe that the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will serve the same purpose for every American. It describes what happened without apology, as a debt to the dead and a reminder to the living that they must prevent such things from ever happening again—to any group.

— David M Fetterman is a Professor of Education at the California Institute of Integral Studies and Stanford University. He lived in Israel for a year, including six months on a kibbutz.

This op-ed piece appeared in the San Francisco Bay Times, September 9, 1993, p. 10. It was also printed in Truth Seeker • Vol. 120 • No. 5 • 1993.