Our class visited the Virginia Holocaust Museum on February 21. We had the honor of being guided by Captain Alex Keisch, a child of Holocaust born in one of the Nazi labor camps. I must admit that the very fact of listening to the voice of somebody who went through the horrors of the Holocaust proved to be at least as revealing as all of the artifacts and documents of the museum combined. I think this effect can be attributed at least in part to human nature (we tend to sympathize more with the people we can directly interact with). Still, I cannot overlook the fact that no matter how graphic and revealing the evidence of the event is, it never convinces the listener as definitely as the presence of a living being who saw and felt it. Thus, a grappling sense of presence and immersion never left me throughout the visit.
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Closer to the second half of our tour, I noticed two peculiar details. First, many of the exhibitions were filled with printed artifacts – either documents or photographs, with occasional written notes. Personal belongings, equipment, and tools pertinent to the topic were featured but seemed far less numerous. If I were told this beforehand, I would likely consider it a disadvantage (after all, there are plenty of freely available images depicting Holocaust on the Web).
However, in the museum, I noticed that many of these documents (especially the photographs) added personality to the story. In my opinion, today’s society is relatively familiar with the event’s terrifying magnitude and inhumanity. Still, very few can relate the data they hear or see to the real human beings, not to mention comprehending the immeasurable suffering. I believe that sheer numbers eventually dumb down the public perception and let us accept (rather than understand) the Holocaust event. On the other hand, seeing the faces of all the victims (and, occasionally, the perpetrators) is a sobering experience that allowed me to connect the information I heard before, as well as that I received during the tour, to the individuals and their feelings (as far as such thing is possible).
The second revelation occurred when we were shown the equipment used by the Nazis to maintain the camp. By that time, the amount of information we were exposed to started to seem somewhat surreal as if humans were incapable of such cruelty, and the whole matter was allegoric in away. Among the artifacts we were shown was the IBM machine used to organize the prisoners’ records using punch cards. Compared to the previous parts of the exhibition, it was not particularly shocking. However, the mechanism on display resonated with the feeling of automated, inanimate force, which I could attribute to some machine (either mechanical or bureaucratic) much easier than to the human mind.
This latter experience allowed me to better understand the consequences of allowing an omnipresent and authoritarian entity such as a Fascism-driven state to control the minds of its citizens. I also noticed that the emotional component is important for communicating this kind of information. No matter how precise and well-documented the presented information is, as long as social justice is at stake, it is important to ensure that the receiving party can relate it to the people involved and project it on themselves. Comprehending the emotional side and looking at the tragedy in the eye has certainly contributed to my awareness of just society’s importance, and I think that such an approach should be a core component of social studies on the matter.