Visit to the United Sates Holocaust Memorial Museum

We are pleased to be sharing, over the coming weeks, a series of three reflection pieces on the State of Formation visit to the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum this March. Each one is a collaborative piece from two of our Contributing Scholars. Read the first one here.

DavidIn visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and reflecting on the current refugee crisis, it became clear to us that we all-too-often choose the safety of inaction and complacency over the risk of action and resistance.

One such example is that we all-too-often hide behind the red tape of bureaucracy as an excuse for inaction. Touring the museum and listening to several Holocaust researchers, this became clear. We heard from Pedro Correa Martín-Arroyo about how bureaucracy and regulations were utilized by Franco’s Spain to limit and restrict Jews from escaping through Spain to seek refuge from persecution.

Also, in countries such as the United States, visa processes were complex and when boats like the St. Louis came from Germany to bring over more than 900 Jewish refugees to the United States, immigration laws were utilized to refuse entrance to these refugees and they were eventually sent back to Europe, where many were killed.

In both of these cases, policies and laws could have been changed or adapted for the emergency at hand, and some people at that time called for this to happen. However, many with the privilege needed to make this change hid behind walls of bureaucracy and refused to risk their own comfort.

However, there were some private citizens who–sometimes in blatant disregard for this bureaucratic red tape and laws–helped many escape to safety. These individuals risked their own safety and security, and we have come to know them today as heroes.

AbigailWe walked through the halls of the Holocaust Museum, somber. It was my first time there, and some of the exhibits I saw were ones I expected to–Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Kristallnacht, the Nuremberg Laws. I’d seen those in documentaries and history books. I’d seen them when I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

But then we turned a corner, and there was a hallway filled with old photos of people protesting, holding signs in English:

Stop Hitler’s Bloody Pogroms on Jews & Catholics.

Gentile and Jew, Unite Against the Fascist Menace.

Americans Support Roosevelt’s Recall of Ambassador to Germany.   

I’ve never seen those photos before.

Our guide, Dr. Victoria Barnett, the Director of the Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, paused in front of the display. “There was outcry here in the United States,” she explained. “There were people who spoke out against Hitler, early on–who saw where he was going. But it wasn’t enough to change things.”

It wasn’t enough to change the US’s immigration quota policies. It wasn’t enough to stop the US government from turning away the MS St. Louis and her hundreds of Jewish refugees passengers fleeing the Third Reich, many of whom were killed by the Nazis after being forced to return to Europe. It wasn’t enough to get the US to intervene earlier–it wasn’t enough to stop the Holocaust from happening.

Barnett sighed, looking at the photos. “It always makes me wonder–what does it take for outrage to change policy?”

DavidToday, with the current refugee crisis in Syria and around the world, we face many of the same issues. When refugees are in desperate need of safety, countries and states such as my own (Indiana) hesitate and then decide: “We must take care of Hoosiers’ safety first.” When each refugee already takes part in at least five different security screenings in a process that takes years to come to the United States, making the excuse that we just need more time to “figure out who these people are” is an attempt to hide behind our own privileged walls of bureaucracy.

However, during our visit we also heard about individuals who, despite the red tape and bureaucracy, were risking their own comfort to help bring refugee families into their own countries and help them resettle there. In my own state, it was important when Archbishop Tobin and Catholic Charities announced that with or without the State of Indiana’s backing and funding, they would continue to resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana. In these cases, persons of privilege have chosen to step outside of the comfort that their privilege has afforded them and utilized their place of privilege to ensure the safety of refugees whose lives are constantly in danger.

AbigailThose black and white pictures, those men and women holding protest signs, and Barnett’s question–”What does it take for outrage to change policy?”–made me think of today.

Today, where we see Syrian refugees desperately crossing seas and staggering hundreds of miles on foot, only to be turned away at borders. Today, when the US government has officially recognized that ISIS is committing genocide in Iraq and Syria. Today, where we see right-wing parties on the rise in Europe and hate-mongering American political candidates riding high on the fear of foreign refugees.   

I think of my own religious community, which has been tirelessly advocating for refugees. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, originally founded in 1939 to help refugees escape Nazi persecution, is now working to aid and advocate for Syrian refugees. Our congregations are sponsoring refugee families. We are posting signs in Arabic, welcoming refugees into the community.   

And yet I wonder. I wonder if the photos of our signs and our protests will fade into history, a tiny segment of a someday museum exhibit on the Syrian genocide. If people will walk through the exhibit, shaking their heads, as a tour guide tells them, There was outcry here in the United States. There were people who spoke out about the refugee crisis, early on–who saw where it was going. But it wasn’t enough to change things.

I wonder about that question–“What does it take for outrage to change policy?”

I think–I hope–that the answer is: More. More people coming together, refusing to let fear and xenophobia close our borders to those seeking refuge. More compassion. More interreligious and intercultural understanding. More protests, more advocacy. More signs. More action.

It’s easy to go to a place like the Holocaust Memorial Museum and think, “I would have been one of the good ones. I would have been holding those signs and smuggling Jewish refugees out. I would have done what was right.”

And it’s equally easy, today, not to do anything. Not to reach out to your local Muslim community, not to get involved in refugee resettlement, not to lobby your government to change its immigration policies.

One of the sayings that emerged from the Holocaust is “Never Again.” At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, they say, “Never Again: What You Do Matters.”

What will you do, today?


Image Credit: Abigail Clauhs 

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