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.


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!