By Frances Townsend
One of the Cincinnati tours available to conference goers this year was to the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center. Forty people attended. As I anticipated this experience, I remembered my time in Poland in Brethren Volunteer Service, 1979-1980. I lived in Warsaw and visited other cities well known in Holocaust history, and saw Auschwitz during the BVS Europe retreat.
The Cincinnati museum certainly took us back through the history, but in a special way. It was through the eyes of several survivors who became residents of Cincinnati. Starting a couple of decades ago, they finally started to tell their stories, in response to those who were denying that the Holocaust ever happened.
One exhibit was about railroad boxcars, narrated by a person who was put in one with his family. There were seventy people herded onto to each car, which was sealed until it arrived at an extermination camp. The story reminded me of a man I met in Poland, a fellow teacher at the agricultural university. When he was around 2 years old, he was dropped through a hole in a boxcar onto the railroad tracks, in hopes that someone would find him and save him. No one ever knew what became of his family.
Many narratives in the exhibit named places I had been, showing how the Jews had been rounded up and carried off, most to their deaths. The survivors told of their families being separated and then suddenly realizing they would never see their loved ones again.
I have a friend of Jewish ancestry in Pennsylvania who told me that during those days, her family talked her grandmother into going to the United States, to ensure that someone from the family might survive. She finally did go and letters came for a while, but then stopped. She never heard from them again, as they probably died in the extermination camps. This story parallels those we heard at the exhibit, narrated by the survivors themselves.
As a child and then a young adult, I did not have difficulty imagining that these were real people with feelings and hopes like my own. But it did feel like ancient history because it happened before I was born. The stories I read were cautionary tales, but it seemed like such a horror that it would surely never be allowed to happen again. Then the genocides happened in Cambodia, then in Rwanda. Then in South Sudan and other places. Then during the war in Bosnia, the 1995 Srebrenica massacre occurred when the town was overrun and the men and boys separated from the women and girls. Over 8,000 were carried off and murdered, a scene reminiscent of so many during World War II. All of this more recent history forced me to understand that the Holocaust can indeed happen again, unless people actively work to avoid it.
The museum exhibit we visited did not end its narrative with the end of the war in 1945. The survivors went on, as it showed, to rebuild their lives here. And as they began in their elder years to tell their stories, they were anxious to move the narrative beyond just feeling sorry for what happened but to go forward into how to rebuild life and work on making the world a better place.
The last section of the exhibit told many stories of ways each visitor can use their gifts to get involved in bringing justice to society and to participate in the healing of the world. This was a direct response to a point made earlier in the exhibit, in the introductory video. The Holocaust began slowly with social and political changes that began to scapegoat the Jews and then to exterminate them. Most of the population did not start out with murderous intent. They just failed to rise up in opposition. Most didn’t get involved, but a few “upstanders” did, risking their lives to save Jews in danger. This end to the exhibit was inviting attendees to be among the “upstanders” of today, as we live through a time when such horrors as the Holocaust are not as unthinkable as they used to be.
It felt quite Brethren, with pictures of people participating in justice and reconciliation and healing activities in their communities. It felt very hopeful. These survivors of the worst trauma that humans can inflict on one another were saying that, despite everything, we can choose and act to make a better life for the world.