Reparations, Restitution, R2P, Sailing, Senators, and more….

This week, the University Programs Division is hosting a workshop about restitution and reparations. I somehow ended up being at the table with nine scholars from around the world. The greatest piece of news is that I have a name placard (one that I printed), which makes me feel very official!  They are discussing many different aspects of restitution since 1945 in multiple countries. Each of them came with a specialty of their own, and their narratives have proven to be very different from each other.

On Friday, I became fascinated with conversations on modern-day antisemitism. I guess I have been naïve about post-war reconciliation. I assumed that after the war, once the world knew about the terrible crimes of the Holocaust, there would have had to be a complete reversal of antisemitism. From an American perspective, it’s difficult to imagine laws still being passed in Europe that can relatively easily be considered antisemitic. Someone casually mentioned a law in Poland that makes kosher slaughter illegal, which effectively makes it impossible for the Jewish community to remain kosher in Poland. The law that would have created an exception for religious reasons to this original law, was rejected only a few weeks ago. I was stunned when I read about this. Banning kosher slaughter was a step taken by Hitler only weeks into his Third Reich, and one that was taken by other European countries such as Norway and Sweden in the 1930′s.  I guess I assumed that there would be additional sensitivity to antisemitism in Europe because of the history of the Holocaust. It looks like the constitutional challenge will be taken to the higher courts in Poland, so we shall see how it all works out. Obviously these laws have been argued for by animal rights proponents, but I know that if I was trying to be kosher in Poland I would certainly feel targeted by these laws. I find it difficult to interpret it any other way.

I have attended some really interesting events in the last few weeks. I feel incredibly lucky to be here, surrounded by opportunities to hear from brilliant people with inspirational ideas.

Last week, the Holocaust museum hosted a conference on the concept of “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” in relation to Syria. I asked for the morning off to be able to see Madeleine Albright for the first time, as well as former ambassador to Sudan, Richard S. Williamson, David Ignatious from the Washington Post, former minister of foreign affairs of Canada, Llyod Axworthy, former ambassador Nicholas Burns, Michael Gerson also from the Washington Post, Heather Hulbert from the National Security Network, and Susan Glasser, the editor of Politico Magazine. This conference was fascinating. Albright explained R2P as a series of agreements that will guide the international community and individual leaders to make decisions regarding human rights. The so-called “pillars” are:

  1. Every state has the duty to protect its citizens from ethnic cleansing
  2. The international community has the duty to help states stop genocide
  3. In the absence of the first two, the international community has the duty to stop genocide (using a wide range of measures, with military intervention coming last)

As a result of the panelists’ real-life experience with the subject, the panels were all excellent. There were a number of former officials from the Bush administration, which was interesting for me. President Bush was the first American president to sign on to the concept of R2P, which meant his officials are some of the ones going out and promoting it. At the end of her presentation about the new R2P report, Madeleine Albright said, “See? This is what happens when Democrats and Republicans work together!” Albright and Williamson tended to talk about the big ideas of R2P, and mostly skirted around specifics in Syria. But Albright was emphatic that the U.S. has good enough intelligence now to know what is going on on the ground. She no longer accepts this as an excuse for inaction. Williamson made a great point about how ultimately solving a problem early on will always be cheaper than cleaning up afterwards (referring to the price of refugees, the disruption of the affected economies, humanitarian aid, etc.). This was in response to the news this week that enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria will cost the U.S. $1 billion a month. They discussed at-length the difficulties of inducing the war-weary U.S. to intervene in Syria. David Ignatious said, “war weariness doesn’t absolve a nation from the moral responsibility to act,” which wore me out struggling to decide how I felt about that.

Both the R2P conference and the workshop on restitution were dealing heavily with the concept of restorative justice and transitional justice. This is a whole new ballgame for me, but it has kept me wondering about how people are able to move on after crises and if they do at all. The reparations being discussed in the workshop seem… somehow frivolous. I think the simple recognition and apology from the government that comes along with the cash is probably more valuable to the victims themselves. This is obviously a gross simplification of the issue, but it’s the conclusion I have come to at the end of this week. Since I also happened to see the new Hannah Arendt movie this week, I am thinking about the court cases that attempted to bring justice to the victims of the Holocaust and the other attempts made after the Rwandan genocide and the Cambodian genocide. Does putting an individual on trial for such an enormous crime help the victims heal? I hope so. At the very least, I do agree that it is important to document and show to the world the crimes committed through these trials.

This week I also happened to see Senator Claire McCaskill drinking a beer at a Buzzfeed event and Senator Al Franken at his constituent breakfast. It’s pretty cool to be in a place where I can have such easy access to the leaders of our government. I had the chance to make Al Franken feel old (oops!) and laugh at Senator McCaskill’s twitter-savvy jokes. I came to the conclusion that I live in a pretty cool country! Today, my friend from CMC also took me out sailing for the first time. It was fun seeing her in her element out on the water. Aside from some seasickness, the weather was beautiful and I was really happy to get out of the city.

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Hitler in Color

I have fallen behind on my blog, so I have a lot to catch up on for the last 2 weeks. Going back to June, I took part in a capitol tour with the other USHMM interns. I was happy to have finally joined the party at the capitol. This summer I have met many people who are somehow connected to the Hill. I love the fact that the museum has set up enrichment activities for the interns. There are a lot of us, but everyone is spread out in the various divisions, floors, and buildings for the museum.

capitol interns

We are starting to get to know each other with another enrichment program, a lecture series with the head historian of the museum. So basically, on top of having spent 50+ hours in a classroom with Christopher Browning (THE Christopher Browning), I have now spent 7 hours with Peter Black, the guy who essentially builds and figures out how to present the history/story the museum wants to portray. We have 3 more of these 3 hour-long lectures to go, and I feel like I came in knowing nothing. The most valuable part of this experience is that Peter has really encouraged us to ask any and all questions that pop into our brains. There are so many misconceptions about the Holocaust, Hitler, Germans, etc., it’s great that we can ask about them to a guy who has already heard it all. An example of this was that Hitler’s grandmother was Jewish and that he had dark features. I certainly was confused about both ideas, but Peter explained the roots of the myth surrounding Hitler’s missing grandfather, and the falsehood of the myth. He also encouraged us to look at color pictures of Hitler, so that we could see that he had blue eyes and lighter/sandy brown hair. The intern that I spend my whole day crammed into a cubicle with, Sarah, accepted the challenge, and quickly found a picture that was striking.

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Sarah and I were both speechless when we looked at this picture. There is a dog, Goebbels looking like an actual human being, full-color, a beautiful backdrop, and Hitler. It was a strong reminder that as far away and mythical as he seems, he was quite recently a normal human being, actually a perfectly mediocre artist. He wasn’t some sort of mythological monster, but rather an opportunist with evil intentions and powerful oratory skills. One who took advantage of a population’s desperation, fear, and festering frustrations. I think it’s a dangerous route when we make Hitler out to be some sort of demon from hell, because then it makes it seem much less possible to happen again. This picture was a reminder to me of this, as opposed to the regular pictures we see of Hitler screaming and looking demon-like. We shouldn’t forget that he somehow managed to convince a large percentage of the German population to trust him, after all.

I went to another First Person event this week with the Holocaust survivor Martin Weiss. He was deported to Auschwitz when he was 15 years old. Most likely he was too small to be kept for labor work, except for the fact that he was wearing 4 heavy layers of clothing that seem to have saved him. The section of the story that made him break down, along with the majority of the audience members, was when he described the selection and sorting process upon arrival at Auschwitz. He was selected for labor as well as his father and brother, but his mother and younger siblings were sent to the line that led to the gas chambers. He decided to join his mother and siblings in the other line in order to help them when they got into the camp. His father also thought it was a good idea, so he darted across the divide and tried to switch lines. A Kapo stopped him and shoved him back into the other line. At the time, he was really angry but after the war he realized how close he had come to marching into the chambers. A few more steps and he wouldn’t have lived to sit on the stage and shock the audience into appreciating the importance of the message of the museum. His full talk is on the museum’s website here

Beyond work, I had a lovely Fourth of July in our nation’s capital. My sister, brother-in-law, and their friends came down to visit for the weekend. I was blown away by the fireworks on the National Mall. They certainly didn’t skimp on the number of them.

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We also went kayaking on the Potomac River and visited the American Indian museum. It was a great weekend!

Beyond some minor (but actually major) frustrations with my mail service, my busy schedule, and my metro fare bill, I am doing really well. Loving this summer. I certainly couldn’t deal with genocide and the Holocaust constantly, but my job is shaping up to do more with logistics and the website than directly with the Holocaust. However, I am still working through Power’s A Problem from Hell, so that book is keeping my evenings light!

Random Tidbits

Life in D.C. is hopping. I have been busy most evenings and most of my weekends so far. I have met far too many new people, been asked for my non-existent business card a few too many times, and spent an obscene amount of money on Metro fare. Here are a few random tidbits from my first month around the city.

Nats game

The picture above was from one of my favorite events of the summer so far: the Annual Congressional Baseball Game at the Nats’ field. The baseball teams were made up of congressmen who wore their local teams’ jerseys. It became quickly apparent that the Republicans were lacking in the defensive side of things… The Democrats scored 5 runs in the first inning. The first few innings I was shocked by how good the Democrats were. They fielded very neatly and consistently hit. I was sitting on the third base line and got to watch Tim Bishop (who is 63 years old) snap up hit after hit and throw perfectly down to first base. When it was his turn to bat, he always managed to get on base and send someone home. Needless to say, I was impressed. My own Senator, Jeff Flake, was the third baseman for the Republicans. He was struggling… and I have to say I was enjoying it. The other cool thing that happened was that about halfway through the game, we realized that the woman who was sitting 2 rows directly in front of us, and who had spoken to Aseem very casually, was actually a congresswoman! Only in D.C. would something like that happen! The final score of the night was a tad embarrassing for everyone involved: 22-0.

Last week I attended an event at the Bipartisan Policy Center with Senator Olympia Snowe. It was a conference room full of interns, so no one was over the age of 25, and basically she was there to answer anyone’s questions. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to hear the honest opinion of a recently-retired senator. She spoke about the dysfunction of the current congress and the need to compromise. I liked her a lot! I think what she and the Bipartisan Policy Center are doing sounds right up my alley. I hope they can successfully draw some attention to the problems, and find a solution.

pride

I was really happy to be in a big city for Pride. This was the most impressive and the longest parade I have ever seen. The crowds were huge and so supportive. I was very hopeful about the future of equal rights after this parade. I definitely got swept up by the emotions on display.

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It’s honestly just really amazing to be here in D.C. and to have plenty of time to spend exploring all of the sights. I love that I live right next to the National Mall and go jogging there whenever I want. That can be a bit complicated though, dodging all of the tourists! The monuments at night are so beautiful! I am happy to be here.

Surviving

Now that I have settled down in my dorm, figured out the ideal cost of cucumbers, strawberries, and cereal, and finally began my office tasks with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, I feel like I have gotten into the flow of this summer.

Last week, the Silberman Seminar came to an end. I got my Christopher Browning autograph and shook hands goodbye with a group of professors who are passionate about spreading knowledge of the Holocaust to a new generation of scholars. I realized afterwards that I had spent about 70 hours in a classroom with the legendary Christopher Browning. He lectured the majority of the time without notes, and knew the historiography of Holocaust studies like the back of his hand. His personal anecdotes were fascinating, especially when he talked about being an expert witness in the David Irving trial and the Daniel Goldhagen “debate” (I would say it was closer to a quarrel).

I have had a number of cool incidents here at the museum this week, but a few really stood out. I met three survivors of the Holocaust who volunteer to speak for the museum occasionally. One was a simple accident. My fellow intern and I decided to go downstairs and eat lunch with the interns who work in the museum to mix things up a bit. We were happily chatting about nonsense, when I finally caught wind of the conversation going on directly across from us at the table. There was an elderly women who I could barely hear, spelling out her experiences at Auschwitz, then afterwards her life in the U.S. It was a strange and humbling moment for me. Here we were talking about T.V., and right across from us was a woman who had had a remarkably hard life, but who was happy to share her difficult story.

On Thursday, I decided to take my lunch break during the “First Person” event that the museum puts on during the summer season. The hour I spent immersed in Steven Fenves’ story really shook me up. He was thirteen when he was sent to Auschwitz. His deportation occurred only a short time after the Americans landed in Europe, but they came too late to save his mother and grandmother. He survived a death march to Buchenwald and was liberated by American soldiers on April 11, 1945. I felt incredibly lucky to have seen his testimony in person, but he also has interviews online here. The part of his story that I found most emotional was when he was kicked out of his home in Subotica, Yugoslavia and forced into the local ghetto. When the family was leaving their home, a long line of neighbors stood waiting on the staircase, spitting and yelling at them as they left. They were waiting patiently in line to loot the recently-vacated apartment. They were people he knew, people who had seen him grow up, who had sold his family groceries, and whose kids were in his classes. The only exception to this was his former cook, who took it upon herself to rescue Steven’s mother’s paintings, recipe book, and a diary. Some of these items are safely resting behind glass in the museum’s permanent exhibit today.

His story was a perfect example of the themes I have been exploring this summer: complicity and indifference. In his story, one person out of an entire town decided to put themselves out there on behalf of the family. Although there were plenty of people who just decided to stay home that day, and took no part in the actual crime, they also took no part in fighting against the injustice. They slipped into the safe position of being a bystander. The question of their guilt in this event is complicated. But I was struck by the truth of Elie Wiesel’s speech “The Perils of Indifference”, and this statement in particular:

“It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.”

It seems to be the theme of my week, possibly the theme of my summer. Between reading Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, and encountering the people who witnessed the ultimate consequences of indifference, I feel like I’m being given a powerful lesson. Indifference empowers perpetrators. If they know that those who could stop them are turning away from their actions, they are given a terrible freedom to do whatever it is they want. With the headlines this week, these questions and thoughts have naturally been falling alongside the question of whether or not the US should get involved in Syria. Instead of leading me to an answer, my feelings towards the predicament have only become more complicated. Speaking about complicated conflicts, Israel has become a topic of frequent discussion for me. This brings me to my first experience with a Holocaust survivor last week. Gideon Frieder spoke at the Silberman seminar about his narrow escape from the Nazis. However, he ended his speech with a very long warning about Israel’s vulnerability and the dangers of indifference. What he had to say was extremely controversial and made me feel pretty uncomfortable, but he ended on something that I have had trouble getting out of my head this week. He said,

“No one took Hitler’s plans and threats seriously either. If the world had taken his words at face value, my sister and mother would never been killed in front of my eyes.”

The lighter stuff

I just finished up my first week at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, working with the University Programs division. I also spent my second week in Washington D.C., exploring the city and getting very well acquainted with the Metro.

This week at the museum, we hosted 24 university professors from around the U.S. as well as Brazil, Mexico, and Canada. They are here for the Silberman Seminar which is a chance for them to catch up on the latest scholarly work on the Holocaust and learn from one of the most respected Holocaust scholars, Christopher Browning. It’s been a real treat to sit in on a room full of professors who are trying to figure out how to structure their Holocaust courses, trying to find a balance of primary sources, pictures, films, and secondary sources. It felt like the veil was being lifted on the secret lives of professors. I enjoyed it!

This internship is exciting to me because I hope to gain a greater understanding of the Holocaust and genocide in general. I am here not only as a history buff, but also as someone who truly believes in the idea that the only way we can prevent another terrible genocide is by learning about the greatest one in the history of mankind. I want to learn more about contemporary genocides, like those that occurred in Rwanda and Yugoslavia in the 1990′s. Like I mentioned in my last post, I also hope to explore the themes of complicity and bystanders during Nazi Germany. I will write a research paper on a topic pertaining to those themes during my time at the museum. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by so many fantastic resources, I can’t wait to explore the archives. The other goal I have for my internship is to understand how to apply the knowledge I gain on the Holocaust in modern life. How does the museum empower others to educate and spread its message? I am looking forward to digging deeply into a topic this summer. I have already learned so much this week.

D.C. is a fantastic city to live in, I am so happy to be here this summer! More stories to come…

Bystanders

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” –Yehuda Bauer

For the amount of times that I have learned about the Holocaust and World War II, I am surprised by how little thought or discussion I have had about the concept of “bystanders” in the period of 1933 to 1945. This, along with complicity, are two themes I am attempting to tackle this summer.

We all know the numbers: 11 million Jews, Roma, Poles, homosexuals, political opponents, disabled people, and elderly people (and many more groups) were targeted for extermination and murdered during this terrible period of time. We all know the Nazi Government administered these mass murders and we know the Nazis came to power in Germany, but we also know that only a portion of population was a member of the Nazi Party and smaller portion actually taking direct part in the 11 million deaths.

That’s why I find the concept of bystanders so interesting. Yes, a large portion of the German population had no direct contact with the Holocaust. They weren’t in the camps, arresting the Jews, signing the death warrants, or firing the guns, but they did play a part in the Holocaust nonetheless.

I came to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at a fortuitous time. A brand new exhibit opened in April, called “Some Were Neighbors.” The exhibit discusses the difficulties of assigning guilt to the countless number of bureaucrats, local officials, drivers, etc. who took part in the deaths of the victims, but who might not have even seen the victims or considered themselves in any way taking part in the murders. I really enjoyed the exhibit, especially because it tried to raise more questions than it answered. Who can decide how guilty these bystanders were, outside of a judge and jury? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I think it’s a topic that is relevant to this day.

Is the person who took this picture of a firing squad in Drohobycz, Ukraine, responsible for not stepping in to try and stop the murders?

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Photo Credit: USHMM Photo Archives

Are the people who walk past someone being bullied guilty at all for not trying to stop it? Rwanda is a natural connection. Is the international community guilty for withdrawing from Rwanda during the worst of the killings?

So yeah. I decided to start off my blog with something light! :D