Tuesday, December 29, 2009

State Memories Project: District of Columbia

My first trip to the Holocaust museum was in 1994 with Alison. I remember a few specific items from the museum itself. I carried a biography card you carry with you to develop a personal story as you walk through the Holocaust. And I remember seeing horrific pictures of Jewish women forced to strip down and humiliate themselves at gunpoint. There was something in the eyes of one of the women that stuck with me--a bit of “You think you’re breaking me, but there’s a part of me you’ll never be able to impact.” And there was a very grisly bit showing Nazis sawing bones up--to re-use them in some fashion, if I recall correctly.

But at some point along there--maybe the humiliated women exhibit, maybe the bones--I started to wonder whether I wanted to look at these things at all. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to avoid knowledge of the Holocaust--I read all of the captions alongside the exhibits. But once I’d done that, I had to make a decision--a conscious decision. Did I want to look at the naked woman in her moment of humiliation? Did I want to see the grisliness of bones being sawed in half?

Perhaps I was intellectualizing the whole experience, which is probably far from a good thing, but what I started doing was watching my fellow museum patrons to see how they responded. I recall one woman at the bones exhibit who had her eyes in contact with the video for maybe three tenths of a second before she literally recoiled and briskly walked away. I recall others looking closely.

Me? Well, I may have taken a coward’s way out. But it did leave me asking the right questions, I suppose. What is the proper way to look at ourselves at our worst? Can we stare too long? Too short? How exactly are we to act when faced with horror?