Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington | March 28, 2016 | By Katja Schatte
Seattle’s recently inaugurated Holocaust Center for Humanity (HCH) demonstrates that teaching a bigger lesson does not have to come at the expense of representing a particular history. With its focus on the stories of local survivors, the center not only bridges the gap between the particular and the universal, it also demonstrates that the respect for, not the erasure of, particularity lies at the root of solidarity.
The Holocaust Center for Humanity’s own history is just as important as the history it represents. It leaves no doubt about how central the role of Holocaust memory and the fight against antisemitism are to its mission. Twenty-six years ago, a group of local survivors founded the center’s precursor, the Speakers’ Bureau, to tell their stories at local schools and universities in response to spreading Holocaust denial. Until this day, the Speakers’ Bureau and the recording of oral histories are vital parts of the Holocaust Center’s work.
However, in the face of diminishing numbers of survivors, the Center has come up with new ways to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. But instead of giving in to what Professor Walter Reich calls “the itch to universalize,” the HCH continues to focus on the stories of Jewish survivors throughout its recently inaugurated exhibit. And instead of forcing the exhibit to choose between teaching about Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and teaching bigger lessons, the survivors’ stories accomplish both at the same time.
As Dee Simon, the Center’s Executive Director, summarizes it: “We learned that students learn best from stories. People learn best from stories. And the richest thing we have is the stories of survivors. That is what makes our museum unique: Holocaust stories from people who survived and came to live here.” As a result, the artifacts on display in the museum are also always “a symbol of someone’s story.”
The Center’s commitment to both preserving these artifacts and making them accessible becomes apparent in its cutting-edge archival infrastructure. After two major institutions, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C. and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Seattle’s HCH is only the third institution in the United States to meet the strict preservation standards of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Collection in Oświęcim, Poland and thus has obtained artifacts from that collection.
Just as important as the preservation and display of the artifacts is the content of the stories the museum tells with them. As Dee Simon explains, specific curatorial decisions ensure that human experiences of the Holocaust, rather than sanitized historical timelines, structure visitors’ experiences of the exhibit. With the exception of a few images from the USHMM, all objects in the HCH exhibit tell the stories of local survivors. Rather than presenting history from the perspective of informed hindsight, the exhibit guides visitors through the lived experiences of identification, exclusion, the turning point of Kristallnacht, flight and rescue, and the mass murder of European Jews in the ghettos and concentration and extermination camps across Europe. Survival, too, is presented as part of the narrative. Ultimately, the exhibit succeeds in answering the oft-asked question “But why did no one see it coming?” by helping visitors understand how members of the European Jewish community experienced history as it was happening. READ MORE