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September 15, 2006

in the Holocaust Museum

I'm at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is hosting a summit for National Youth Leadership Organizations. Last night, we were given guided tours of the Museum's main exhibition in order to promote serious thinking about moral leadership. Two ideas occur to me.

1. It's very tempting to identify ourselves with the victims. We see German officers brutally beating a Jewish prisoner in a death camp (the purpose of which is to kill him), and we identify with the man on the ground. We imagine the "counterfactual" that we were born Jewish in Europe in 1900 or 1910. Perhaps that's especially easy for me, since I'm a person of Jewish orgin; but I suspect that almost all visitors place themselves in the same role. To imagine being victimized is upsetting, but it's also a bit consoling, because one takes the moral high ground. However, I am not a Jew born in Poland or Ukraine in 1900. It would be just as realistic to imagine myself as a gentile German of the same age. If that had been me, statistics suggest that I would have participated in the Holocaust or done nothing to stop it. It's an indulgence to imagine that I would have been one of the very few to oppose the Nazi regime.

2. The building is a basically modernist structure by James Ingo Freed. Modernists eschew decoration, which is thought to be inauthentic, arbitrary, and frivolous. Form is supposed to follow function. As a result, modernist buildings aren't pretty, although they may be sublime. However, to make the Holocaust Museum a kind of representation of the Shoah, Freed included elements that allude to gas vents, train tracks, and prison bars. These elements are a bit disturbing, but also quite attractive. The result is a modernist building that is more decorated, and perhaps prettier, than most. For example, I find the Holocaust Memorial Museum more attractive--and more comfortable--than two nearby buildings by I.M Pei that are settings for commerce and art: L'Enfant Plaza and the East Wing of the National Gallery.

September 15, 2006 5:39 PM | category: none


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