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.

lincoln

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.

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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?

Image

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! 😀