SELLING THE HOLOCAUST MUSEUM
by Amadio Galante
Every April 29th I took the subway to Brooklyn Heights to visit Yosef T., my old Hebrew teacher, on his birthday. For him I carried chocolates, always the same kind, and white carnations for his wife. Three years ago, in 1996, Yosef T. had his last birthday, his eighty-fifth. He was, as usual, very happy to see me; Rachel, his wife, was there, and two relatives of hers, cousins I believe, whom I had never met and whose names I didn't catch: they were all worked up over a discussion which my arrival interrupted but was resumed as soon as I was sitting with a glass of tea."If you want a museum you need the money, Yosef," said the older cousin, who appeared to be in his eighties, but still fit.
"I didn't ask for a museum," said Yosef, peevishly.
"He didn't ask for a museum," repeated the older cousin, "so he doesn't want a museum! And why? Because he doesn't like the way they ask for funds. Good thinking. That's like refusing to have a life-saving operation because you don't like the manners of the receptionist at the hospital front desk."
"Don't you see, Yosef? You're being ridiculous," Rachel T. interjected; "haven't you read what the neo-Nazis are saying?" She turned to me: "Can you believe it? They claim that the killing of six million Jews never occurred! The horrors Yosef went through, the murder of all his relatives, just a figment of his imagination!"
"And if they're saying that now, what are they going to be saying fifty, sixty years from now, when we are no more, when not a single witness is left?" wondered the older cousin. "That Auschwitz and the other camps were health spas and Mengele was a masseur?"
Yosef T., who is the most patient and quiet person I know, finally yelled, raising from his chair, "Stop it, please! It was me who was there. Amadio, you who are a younger man (he said to me), tell me what you make of this letter." And coming to my side he handed me the letter in question, with the logo of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "See, they want me to become a Charter Member, so they tell me why this will be 'such a rewarding experience.' Rewarding, to find out what man can do and did to man? Now read this description: 'Exposed beams, twisted ceilings, gates, bricks, steel and towers will recall the physical and psychological aura of the Holocaust and set the stage for the profound experience within -- an authentic and powerful experience unlike that of any museum you've ever known or even heard about...' What do they mean by physical aura? Look it up: a gentle breeze, a zephyr, a subtle, delicate emanation? What do they mean by authentic? Will a visit bring back the hopelessness, the horror? Now tell me, who is crazy, me or them? And here, here, look at this: 'As a charter member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, you will illuminate forever the tragedy of darkness...' Illuminate forever! You see what I'm saying? Am I senile? Have I forgotten the meaning of words? 'You will help celebrate the triumph of the human spirit...' The triumph of the human spirit, at Auschwitz! No, this can't be, it must be me who's senile. 'For $25 or more, you'll enjoy special members only benefits, including a 10% discount in the Museum Shop...' They even have a shop. They sell you records, posters, boxed sets of note cards. Tell me, Amadio, you've known me for many years: you really think I've gone meshuge? Look, look at the Membership Benefits (and he pointed with the same strong, crooked finger with which he used to point at the Hebrew letters in the Torah): for $36 they'll give you a 'handsome U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Insignia Pin,' and for the top membership level of $1,000 you'll get invitations 'to intimate tours led by Museum curators and officials.' See, down here: 'all Charter Members will be listed in the Museum's permanent Roll of Remembrance.' I ask: Where are the names of the millions who were murdered? Nowhere. Forgotten. But you send them a check, and your name is listed permanently. Permanently. And for $500 they'll even put your name in 'select Museum publications.' I can understand it's very hard to find out the names of all who perished. And even if they could be found, it would be hard to actually write down such a long list; but tell me, you who are a younger man, don't you think in that case they should abstain from all lists?"
With that, Yosef T. sat down and wiped his brow. The question was left ringing in the air, until Rachel, his wife, answered for me: "All museums do that. How else do you want them to raise money?"
"In this letter they mention Dachau, Buchenwald, Ohrdruf," Yosef went on as if given a new lease of indignation, "they never mention Auschwitz. And why do you think that is? Guess why. Because it was the Soviet Army, not the U.S., who liberated us."
The older cousin waved his hand in dismissal. "Of course, Yosef. The American public wants to see names like Eisenhower and Patton, not Stalin or Zhukov. What's wrong with that?"
"From the ones who claim they're giving us truth and the light? From the ones who promise to dispel the shadows?" my teacher stuck stubbornly to his guns.
"It seems to me you're being rather pedantic, concentrating on the historic detail, but that's not the way things work," said the younger cousin, a man in his seventies who had not said a word till now. "I've been in business all my life and I can tell you how it works: museum administrators get together with professional fund raisers and figure out the way that's going to elicit the largest response and the biggest contributions -- style of the letter, phrasing, what to include, what not to include, and so on. Take the letter that's included in your package from the Plainfield, Vermont G.I., for example. The guy probably tried to include graphic details of what he saw at Dachau back in '45, but the P.R. professionals, very wisely I think, cut it out and instead wrote: 'Now I'm not going to make you sick by telling you details, but let me just say that it changed my life forever.' They have it pretty much figured out. They know that 90% of the people like the idea of changing their own lives forever but don't care for the disgusting details. Rachel is right: all museums do that, and so if you want a museum, that's the way to go about it. And if you don't want a museum, well, fine, that's your choice too, but then don't come to me complaining that the world forgot what you went through when they say you invented it all, that the tatoo on your arm you got it at a parlor just for show."
My old teacher muttered dejectedly, "Hitler gave us the real Gehenna, America gives us Gehenna the Theme Park." Later, when the cousins had left and his wife was in the kitchen making more tea, he returned to the subject and asked me, "Don't you think that the truth will always prevail, somehow and against all odds, sooner or later?"
I assured him that I thought so, that there is no doubt in my mind that it will: what else would you tell an eighty-five-year-old survivor? And he leaned toward me as if he were telling me a secret: "That's the hope that sustained me during the Auschwitz horror..."
I didn't have the heart to tell him my real thought, that truth happens to be just another commodity bought and sold at the marketplace. The bitter pun, "There's no business like Shoa business" happened to cross my mind, but the old man wouldn't have understood the reference.
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