Lessons of Holocaust for 9/11 Museum

Editor's Notebook

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By Jane Eisner

Published May 14, 2014.
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Chanin sees the remembering of the Holocaust as providing a “template” for shaping the way we collectively, even globally, pull out from an historic event its larger meaning for mankind.

Just think about all the Holocaust museums and memorials across America and around the world, in cities, towns and suburbs far away from the gas chambers and mass graves of Europe. Even in places with little or no Jewish presence, there’s a belief that the Holocaust should be taught, its lessons absorbed so as not to be forgotten.

In its latest global survey released May 13, the Anti-Defamation League reports that only 54 percent of the people around the world have heard of the Holocaust, and we consider that, legitimately, a dangerous finding. Everyone should know about the Holocaust! As well they should. It’s fascinating how in half a century we have come to expect that a singular atrocity should be considered a global lesson plan.

Much as the Holocaust has informed our way of remembering and memorializing the terrorist attacks 13 years ago, there are meaningful differences between it and 9/11.

“We are not Auschwitz,” was the direct way Sara Bloomfield, director of the Holocaust museum in Washington, put it in an interview. “We are not a graveyard. We are not even in Europe. We are tied to the civic landscape of this country.”

Even the architectural contrasts between the two structures illustrate this powerfully: The Holocaust museum sits proudly on the mall in Washington, its gleaming limestone and brick facade visible for all to see. The 9/11 museum is buried deep beneath the footprint of the Twin Towers, next to unidentified remains housed on that very site.

It is not grafted onto the American story. It is embedded in American soil. Or, as Chanin noted: “We are at the scene of the crime and they’re not. The authenticity of place is in the bones of this very project, but it complicates the project.”

While those complications ­­— financial, political, emotional and otherwise — sent the 9/11 museum project down detours and near dead-ends, it still is opening astonishingly close to the time of the events it chronicles. “Thirteen years feels incredibly raw to me,” Bloomfield said. “If we opened 13 years after the Holocaust, we would be a very different place.”

The challenge — not just for the museum but also for the nation — is that the legacy of 9/11 has not yet been written. “We are still grappling with the void,” said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who helped build the museum in Washington. “We had false steps in Iraq, confused steps in Afghanistan. The nation spends a lot on security and still feels insecure. We don’t have an articulated sense of what we are after 9/11. What does it mean? It’s an incredible problem for the museum to resolve because the nation hasn’t resolved it.”

The Holocaust became the subject of global memory in part because it was the first massive genocide of the technological age. Grainy newsreels showing piles of dead bodies and emaciated survivors had an enormous impact on the American public. Edward R. Murrow’s heart-wrenching radio broadcast from the liberation of Buchenwald penetrated the American home.

How much more so on September 11, 2001, when the attacks unfolded in horrifying vividness, in real time. You were a witness no matter where you were. Perhaps that is why a third of the nearly 13 million people who have visited the memorial at Ground Zero since it opened in 2011 are from overseas. Even as the attacks highlighted our vulnerability, they also showed how America has important lessons to impart.

“The global culture of memory taught people there is something to learn from this,” Chanin said. Remembering the Holocaust set that process in motion.


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