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When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened 20 years ago, there were questions about its mission and whether it belonged so near the Mall. The events took place in Europe; the victims were concentrated in one ethnic group; was this really an American story?
Thirty-five million visitors later, those questions have been answered. The museum has been extraordinarily successful in preserving the memory and promoting the understanding of a chapter of history that must never be forgotten.
But it also has become a "national and international institution," its director, Sara J. Bloomfield, told us recently, dedicated to what Elie Wiesel always envisioned as its co-purpose: "confronting hate, preventing genocide and promoting human dignity."
The storytelling power of the museum's permanent exhibit has been well-chronicled, and it has lost none of that power over its two decades. Nine out of 10 visitors are non-Jews; one-third are in school groups; one in seven is a repeat visitor. But the museum is much more than that exhibit. It has developed training programs for U.S. police and military officers and for judges. It takes in an average of one historical collection a day collections that may include photos, uniforms, "a doll I carried with me."
Not long ago the museum obtained a hastily scribbled note from a mother who chose to go to the gas chambers so her disabled child wouldn't die alone. She sent her love to her husband and warned him not to spoil their surviving son, now that he would be an only child.
As the generation of Holocaust survivors dies out, the preservation of these objects will take on new importance, as will the many archives from around the world that the museum is working to preserve. So will its work identifying the causes of genocide and seeking to prevent such killings. "Our biggest message is not only that it happened but that it didn't have to happen, it was preventable, there was a failure of leadership," said Bloomfield.
You could look at the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the terrible killings in Darfur, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's ongoing slaughter of his own people a slaughter that the United States is doing little to prevent and conclude that the museum has failed at its second mission. A fairer reading would be: There's still a lot of work to do.
Last weekend the museum marked its two-decade anniversary and opened a special exhibition, "Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust." Museum researchers have been collecting remembrances not only from Holocaust survivors but also from perpetrators and the many people who fell somewhere in between.
"People who were complicit one day could have helped a Jew the next day," Bloomfield says. "We want people to think, 'What would I have done? What WILL I do?' The categories are complex. We want to complicate people's thinking a little more."
It's a worthy mission for the next 20 years.