Monday, July 06, 2009

By Looking Away, Are We Robbing Someone of Their Legacy?

By not looking someone in the eye as you walk by them, or by turning away from someone in an uncomfortable situation, what is your action doing to that person?

Could you, in fact, be robbing them of their humanness – of their identity and their place in the world?

I’ve been wondering about that question ever since A. and I toured the Holocaust Museum earlier today (her first visit, my second), and it came about as the result of something I noticed while walking through the exhibition halls. In the areas where the displays consisted of photos of large groups of people, old video footage, artifacts, and mementoes of that period in history, everyone seemed to be giving their undivided attention to what they were seeing. By and large, the lines moved slowly through the areas where the victims were not taken as individuals, but as part of the larger group of those so tragically eliminated by Hitler’s regime.

In other rooms of the museum, though – rooms filled with individual photos of families and folks enjoying happier times in life – it seemed visitors were jetting through as quickly as possible. I didn’t see anyone take the time as I did to look at the pictures of brothers and sisters dressed in their finery for Shabbat services or the families enjoying a vacation in the mountains. No one was pausing to consider the photos of the old Zayde – the grandfather – sitting on the front porch of his home, or of the children gathering for an afternoon of fun in the town square, or of the little girl sitting on her bed staring innocently into the lens of the camera. In short, no one was stopping to take a glimpse into the lives that were interrupted and in many instances cut short – the lives of the boys and girls who never had the chance to experience life beyond their childhood, and the lives of the elderly who had stolen from them the opportunity to pass on their wisdom, their knowledge, and their heritage to younger generations.

Is it enough for the visitors who rushed through these areas to consider the Holocaust – indeed, all such horrific periods in human history – in broad, general terms, rather than really delving into the underlying collection of stories making up the history of the Jewish people? Do they not want to look deeper, preferring to keep things in a general, “read about it in my history book” sort of summary?

Or do they move by because they are afraid to look more carefully into the eyes and the faces of those who have suffered and who continue to suffer to this day, afraid to move beyond what they’ve been told into a much more emotional realm? If you look into the faces of those men and women, the young and old, in those photographs, you are stepping through a doorway into their lives, their loves, and their familial joys. In essence, you are putting a human face on a situation that many today only know through books and movies. But to look away, to not see what was taken from the world, are the voices of the past being robbed of a bit of their legacy – of their humanness?

Are they afraid to look because they know that once they see the problem – once they see the difficulties of the past and the challenges of today – they will be compelled to act, and action makes them uncomfortable?

I saw one other thing at the museum that really made me think even more about these questions. When first entering the exhibit, everyone has the opportunity to take an identification card – a little booklet that tells the story of a single victim or survivor of the Holocaust, from their childhood to the end of their lives. Mine is sitting on my desk in front of me (the story of Welek Luksenburg of Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland) as I write this, but I saw several folks open them, give them a cursory glance, and then throw them in the closest trash can as they headed through the exit.

Do they not care, or do they simply not want to know?


Kansas Bob said...

This is a really thoughtful post Matt.. maybe the next time I visit a museum I will spend a little more time at some of the exhibits.

We may be in DC in the fall so I may have an opportunity to put your admonitions to use.

rdl said...

I'm afraid to say they don't care.
Great post!

Karen said...

You should get to know Welek and his wife Hinda before they pass away. They are wonderful people who are willing to share every detail of their horrific "sagas" with everyone. They summer in DC and winder in Florida.