Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Final "Solutions"

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. It was a sobering experience and, combined with  Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this week, prompted me to write something.

Two things in particular struck me about the museum. Whether these are related to each other or not, I'll let you decide. I'll simply present them.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum
First, the phrase "Final Solution," the Nazi description of their genocide, made sense in a way it never has previously. I knew it was the euphemism for the mass execution of the Jews, but it seemed a strange choice. The Museum gives the necessary background. In the literature prior to and leading up to the war, there were increasing references to the "Jewish problem" or the "Jewish question." Hitler, in particular, jumped on and perpetuated this way of thinking, emphasizing the problem. Segregation, ghettos, ostracization, deprivation of rights, concentration camps, were then all implemented with increasing severity to address this problem. It then made linguistically sense to refer to mass extermination as the "final" solution to the problem. There's a perverse logic to the whole thing. Once the premise of a "problem" was adopted, all sorts of "solutions" became viable. The euphemism was twice removed, allowing the participants to distance themselves from the horror they were committing.

I wanted to intervene in history and challenge the premise. What if Jews living among Germans isn't a "problem" that needs a "solution"? What if it is something else? The tragedy was possible because a "problem" had been misidentified.

And then I turned that on myself. What do we, do I, misidentify as a "problem" today? I can't change history, but here and now, where does a "problem" need to be challenged so as not to lead to an atrocious "solution." Where have people been labeled "problems" by their mere existence?

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US Holocaust Memorial Museum
What if the immigrant without documentation is a person, not a "problem"?

What if the unborn child is a person, not a "problem"?

What if the poor family taking advantage of assistance are people, not a "problem"?

What if in calling these as "problems," the error is ours?

Each of these can cause social tensions, and dare I say social burdens for everyone. But might those not be burdens we should be willing, nay glad, to bear, instead of seeking a "final solution" so they no longer interfere with our lives? What if instead of a "problem," we instead thought of these in terms of a person who needs help? They are addressed not by a "solution," but by a friend. The Holocaust starkly demonstrates that dehumanized "problems" lead to inhumane "solutions". What "final solutions" have we been willing to entertain?

Second, the slogan seen repeatedly through the museum is "Never Again." Never again will we allow this sort of atrocity to take place. Never again will we turn a blind eye. Never again. After the war, many leaders of the Allied forces made a point to personally tour the camps. They wanted to see first hand how bad it was. A quote by General Eisenhower was displayed on one of the walls. He said that a day would come when people would try to say it wasn't as bad as the rumors reported, and he wanted to be able to personally refute that. That's why he subjected himself to seeing the camps. That's why we subject ourselves to looking at the photographs, reading the descriptions, standing in the boxcars, and walking through the room of shoes.

But possibly even more striking than anything than any single display is the moment you walk out of the museum, out of darkly lit Nazi controlled Europe, and into the sunshine of the national mall surrounded by laughing and jovial tourists. It's a shock, a combination of gratitude that you're no longer there and gravity that such cruelty can take place. One feels the need to sit and ponder, yet the world calls for gaiety.

I think something is lost in that transition. The Holocaust becomes a little more unreal, just another exhibit. For contrast, imagine walking out of the museum and be not in Washington, DC, but instead be standing in one of the camps.

This made me wonder, what if we don't think of "Never Again" quite deeply enough. We think of it in context of WWII, where we were on the right side. We intervened. When we say "Never Again," we say it from a point of strength and pride. Never again will we let that happen. We may have been late, but we still came through. We're aware of, yet still detached from, the atrocity. What if, instead, we pledged something slightly different. What if "Never Again" wasn't simply something we said to others, but something we said to ourselves? What if we saw the potential for our own involvement, and that scared us?

The Holocaust is a testament to the depravity of the human soul. That much is made perfectly clear in the Museum. This isn't the soul of some "other." Those committing the atrocities were as human as you or I. "Never Again" should be just as much a check on ourselves as it is a check to use against someone else. It is an opportunity for both resolve and self examination.

And that is why we can never forget.

Never forget that someone like me did something like that.
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