As Orlando Menes Once Wrote, “idyllic memories are a jeweled noose.” | The Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Detrimental Kitsch

Visitors to the United States Holocaust Museum, which is about to celebrate its’ 20th anniversary, pass beneath a cast taken from the original entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, inscribed with the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free), on April, 17, 2013 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

[…. the Cuban exile community in the United States to which Menes belongs provides a textbook case of the way nostalgia and self-absorption (the other cardinal vice of the exiled and the scorned), however understandable a community’s resorting to them may be, also often serve as a prophylactic against common sense, political or otherwise.

But Cuban Americans are hardly alone in their self- imposed predicament; at various points in their history, the Irish, the Armenians, and the Tamils have been equally trapped in their own particular versions of what the writer Svetlana Boym has called “the dictatorship of nostalgia.” And Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum testifies that American Jews are no less immune to nostalgia’s temptations.]


The historian Tony Judt once recalled that during a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, he saw “bored schoolchildren on an obligatory outing [playing] hide-and-seek among the stones.” He argued, “When we ransack the past for political profit — selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons — we get bad morality and bad history.” To which one should add: We also get kitsch.

Even when done well, commemoration almost always skates precariously close to kitsch. One might wish that the Holocaust were an exception in this regard, and that it will always, in Leon Wieseltier’s phrase, “press upon the souls of all who learn of it.” But it is not, much as we might wish otherwise.

This is a distinct problem, not to be confused with the fact that since 1945 the Shoah has regularly been employed to serve political agendas, the most obvious, as Judt emphasized, being to justify more or less any policy of the State of Israel with regard to its neighbors or to its Arab minority. But even when the remembrance of the Shoah is innocent of such subtexts, it has still been smothered in kitsch as Milan Kundera once defined it: all answers being “given in advance and [precluding] any questions.” Again, it is understandable to hope that people will be moved by an act of collective remembrance. And it is often, though not always, right to insist that they have a moral duty to remember. Where such acts become kitsch is when people take the fact that they are moved as a reason to think better of themselves.

It is unfortunate that a prime example of the instauration of this kind of kitsch remembrance is the U.S. National Holocaust Museum itself — the largest and best-known memorial to the Shoah in the world other than the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum and Center in Israel. To be sure, much of what is in the museum is as heartbreakingly far from kitsch as it is possible to get — above all, what Wieseltier called “the objects, the stuff, the things of the persecutions and the murders,” when he rightly described the Holocaust Museum as “a kind of reliquary.”

But these exhibits and films, photographs, and documents are bracketed by two extraordinarily kitschy pieces of set dressing.

As one first enters the museum and before one has seen a single image or artifact of either Nazi atrocity or Jewish martyrdom, one must first walk by the serried battle flags of the U.S. Army divisions that liberated some of the concentration camps (there are no British or Russian standards, even though a great many of the museum’s exhibits concern Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British, and Auschwitz, liberated by the Soviets). And as one leaves the last room of the museum, the final exhibit one sees contains a series of images of David Ben-Gurion proclaiming the independence of the State of Israel, and, beyond them at the exit, a column of tan sandstone that is simply identified as having come from Jerusalem.

One can only hope that in addition to the American triumphalism and what even by the most generous of interpretations is a highly partisan pro-Israeli view of the creation of the state as the existential remediation of the Nazis’ war of extermination against the Jews, the intention here was to palliate what, apart from the part of the exhibit devoted to the Danes’ rescue of most of their country’s Jewish population, is the pure horror of what the museum contains by beginning and ending on an uplifting note.

The impulse is an understandable one. But it is also both a historical and a moral solecism that perfectly illustrates Judt’s admonition that the result is both bad history and bad morality.

Read the full story here: The United States Museum of Holocaust Kitsch


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