I’m not really sure why it took me 58 years to visit Washington D.C. I’m just glad that I did so earlier this month.
As an adult, a first trip to our nation’s capitol, especially taking in its monuments and museums, can be overwhelming in a good way, filling the mind and heart with a lot of complimentary and conflicting impressions.
One of the things that struck me was the large number of people at every site, crowds with great diversity in race and nationality. DC isn’t Disney World: there are no amusement parks and carnival rides that can explain people willing walk long distances and wait in lines. Washington fascinates but doesn’t seek to entertain.
With reminders of our history that is both inspiring and disturbing, the DC experience is profoundly meaningful. I find it encouraging that so many people come every day of the year to get an in-depth review of the world’s greatest experiment in democracy.
The site I wasn’t prepared for
In a matter of just a few days I went on a guided tour of the White House and of the Capitol, visited the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Martin Luther King memorials, took in all the war memorials, and the Smithsonian. We discovered that the African American History museum is so popular that (free) tickets must be secured weeks in advance.
A place that wasn’t on my initial visit list had the greatest impact on me: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. (www.ushmm.org)
The Holocaust Museum might seem out of place in the mecca of freedom and liberty, but it serves as a disturbing reminder that a nation or a generation of people are susceptible to deception and manipulation and then capable of a rationalized evil so horrific that their actions make deadly animals seem humane by comparison.
Many times, I was reminded that the atrocities were being committed less than two decades before my birth. The Holocaust was so barbaric that it’s inconceivable that it was carried out by a developed nation only a few generations ago.
The link of racism and dehumanization
In many ways my time in the Holocaust Museum reminded me of my visit to the Martin Luther King museum in Atlanta some years ago. I was a child of the ’60s raised in the South and I had no idea about the level of discrimination, injustice, and violence that was commonplace. I was eight years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I don’t remember hearing anything about his death (or his life) until many years later in school and it was a brief mention at that.
Hitler’s dehumanizing of Jews was personally validated as he considered how whites treated minorities in the United States. In his 2017 book “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law”, author and Yale law professor James Q. Whitman explores how the Nazis drew inspiration from American racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whitman notes that in Mein Kampf Hitler praises the U.S. as the one developed country that had made progress toward a primarily racial conception of citizenship by “excluding certain races from naturalization.”
The racist German Nazis surrendered in 1945 but American racism was still active and armed in 1965. And indications are that the virus of racism is alive and spreading in 2018.
I had several questions prodding me during my time in the Holocaust museum, questions that have lingered.
1) What planet are Holocaust deniers living on? The historical evidence of the systematic extermination of millions of Jewish men, women, and children is absolutely
overwhelming. There is more evidence for the occurrence of the Holocaust than evidence that the 2018 World Series took place. Could anyone visit this museum and leave still denying the Holocaust’s horrible reality?
2) What would a white supremacist or neo-Nazi feel while touring this museum? Could he even remotely feel validated in his attitudes and actions?
3) What is so bad or threatening about Jewish people that anti-Semitism has existed throughout the world for centuries, and in the United States right up to the present
day? How is that the small percentage of any country’s population, who just want to live and work in peace, is so consistently persecuted? Jews in Hitler’s Germany comprised less than 1% of the population and sought no political power.
It was Saturday, Oct 27, and I was seated in a Franklin writers conference. During a break I learned about the shooting massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue and texted my closest Jewish friend, Barry Weinstein, and wrote, “Barry, I don’t even know what to say. It’s not just Pittsburgh. It’s the violent persecution of peace-loving Jewish people that has continued for thousands of years in every part of the world. I’d like to think we are more civilized in modern times and in America but it appears that neither is true. So, I just want to say today that I love you, my friend.”
Standing in a museum on a Saturday morning in Washington D.C. earlier this month I thought of Barry again. He didn’t get a text. This time I was speechless.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at
firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Presson’s previous columns go to www.franklinhomepage.com/?s=ramon+presson.