Memories, Lessons of the Holocaust

Each year, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, survivors, theologians, political leaders and others come together in the nation's capitol to reflect on the lessons of the Holocaust. Sara Bloomfield, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., discusses the annual observance and the museum's mission.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Still to come, former President Jimmy Carter talks about his recent trip to the Middle East and his new book, a tribute to his mother. But first, today we begin our commemoration of the Holocaust, when the world remembers the six million Jews and millions of others murdered by Germany's Nazi regime and its collaborators. It's been more than half a century since the horrors of the Holocaust. But today it gives us an occasion to consider some important questions, like how did this happen? Why did this happen? And could it happen again? To help us with these reflections is Sara Bloomfield. She is the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and she joins me in our studio. Welcome. Thank you for coming. Ms. SARA BLOOMFIELD (Director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How is Holocaust Remembrance Day observed?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Well, it's observed in many ways all over the world. In this country, our institution sponsors a remembrance ceremony, actually in the Capitol of the Rotunda. And part of that ceremony actually is a candle lighting moment, where a survivor of the Holocaust and a member of Congress jointly light a memorial candle together. But as much as it is a reflection back, it's really a statement about the hope for the future. And it is symbolically done in the Capitol of the Rotunda, very much as a statement about the values upon which this country was founded. And I think very much kind of an aspirational moment about where our country is meant to be, striving to be.

MARTIN: You mentioned that a survivor participates in this ceremony. Do we have any idea how many survivors are left?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: We are really not sure of that. Part of the question is actually, you know, what is the definition of a survivor? It's defined in many different ways. We would actually define it as probably anybody who lived under Nazi occupation, of Nazis or their collaborators, because basically, if you did at any point, you were basically subject to death, even though you eventually might have gotten out.

MARTIN: How do you explain the significance of the Holocaust to generations that are increasingly removed from those events?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Yes. That's a big question. And it is, if you look back historically, and of course, we think history really matters. One of my favorite quotes I brought it along with me today was said by the late Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin. He said, trying to plan for the future without knowing the past is like planting cut flowers. And I think that speaks really importantly as we go to the 21st century because I think we're going to face a lot of tough challenges.

And I think one of the things the Holocaust posed for us was really showing us, if you will, the depths of the human soul and the depravity of what the human soul could do. It happened in the heart of what we like to call Western civilization, in a place we thought was so advanced. The greatest Christian theologians were coming out of Germany. It was a country of prosperity, of peace. Germans were the greatest educated nation on earth. So why did this country...

MARTIN: The students of human nature of the mind, I mean, the study of human behavior is associated with Germany.

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Exactly. We could go into culture, music, you know, this has all been discussed. It was not a country that was threatened by its neighbors. So why? And of course, and even when you think about it, Hitler came to power, he didn't even start mass murder. It was eight long years after he was in power before he began mass murder of the Jews. And the world knew about this. So whatever century we're living in, I think this is a real cautionary tale of what the human species is capable of.

MARTIN: Do you think that tale has different meaning to Jewish people and non-Jewish people?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: I think certainly, if you are Jewish, and you think - realize that this happened to your own people, obviously, you can't deny it's personal. But I think this is really a human story. On one level, it is certainly about something that Germans and their collaborators did to Jews and other victims of Nazism. But I think, very basically, this is something people did to other people. And can do again.

MARTIN: And have done again, obviously, one thinks about Rwanda, Cambodia. Not of the same scale of death, but certainly the viciousness, the intention to eliminate people. How does the museum grapple with, and really, it doesn't mean so much the museum as an institution, but how would you recommend that we grapple with these kinds of events which continue, even despite the fact that no one can say now, oh, I didn't know.

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Yes. And we have tried to educate our visitors to the fact that this is a continuing problem. We will actually be opening next year an exhibit called "From Memory to Action," so now that you know about the Holocaust, you know that this problem exists in the world, we challenge our visitors to go out and form what we call a constituency of conscience, because as individuals, we cannot stop genocide, but if we care about this and we alert the people around us, other people who care, we think that together, maybe perhaps our leadership will care and perhaps things like this won't happen.

Another interesting thing about the Holocaust is if you look back on history, you find that when institutions failed and when nations failed, individuals were able to make a difference. So today, you find that you can help humanitarian organizations in Darfur by supporting them. That you are able to help the refugees who have fled into Chad. There are ways to help those individuals. So there are ways for individuals to make a difference in the world. And sometimes it's not just about genocide, but there are other ways you can help your world be a better place. And I think the Holocaust presents us with that lesson, as well.

MARTIN: I think that museum has a particular message about the bystander. Can you talk about that, because I think there are far more bystanders than active participants. Do you think that's an accurate statement?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: It's funny you say that. Our founding director, who created the main exhibition in our museum, once said to me, he said, you know, I created a museum about bystanders for bystanders. And the final floor of our core exhibition is really about them. But how do you create an exhibition about something that didn't happen? It's hard to do, so what we have on the floor is really showing the opposite. And so he gives a lot of space to those people who did act and those are people we call rescuers. The people who hid Jews during the Holocaust. There are about 23,000 of them. It it sounds like a large number, but in the scale of the Holocaust, it's really a very small number.

Now these are extraordinary people. Many of them risked their lives. They often risked the lives of their families. And they tend to be pretty humble people, and when you asked them what motivated them, they just said, I did what just seemed like the right thing to do at the moment. It was no big deal.

MARTIN: Can we talk about you for a minute?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Sure.

MARTIN: You've been involved in the museum since its conception, even back before it existed except on paper, as an idea. Has it changed over the years?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Well, it's interesting. I'm not sure it's changed but so much has changed in the world around us that I see it becoming increasingly more relevant. I know that sounds like an unusual thing to say but, well, certainly the issues of genocide - I mean, we opened when ethnic cleansing was taking place in the former Yugoslavia. A year later, Rwanda erupted and now we have Darfur. You know, that astonishes me.

Now we have the president of Iran denying the Holocaust. You have anti-Semitism on the rise. You see extremism erupting. I think we have questions about the nature of evil. So in a way, I find myself, I've been at the institution for 22 years, and I find myself feeling that in some ways, we're more pertinent in the 21st century than in the 20th.

MARTIN: But does that bother you?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: I wish I thought a museum could change human nature. I don't think we can. I think we can expose human nature, and I think it's very important that we exist on the mall in Washington. I think it's kind of quite important because I think in a way, we exist in a counterpoint to the memorials around us because human freedom is very important, but we should never be taking it for granted.

MARTIN: The museum's been open for 15 years. You've been involved with it for 22 years. Why do think this is your life's work, and does it ever get to be too much?

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: You know, people always ask you when you go to a cocktail party, that's always the first question, when people ask you where you work, they think, oh, my gosh, it must be the most depressing place.

MARTIN: I'm sorry to be boring, typical, but you know...

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: No, it is...

MARTIN: But this is our private cocktail party.

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Yes, it's always the first question when people find out where you work. And my feeling is, it's a privilege because it's a memorial to the past. And I can't save the victims anymore, but I can do something in their memory which might save future lives. And that if I can help save future lives in memory of past lives, that's really an honor, that is truly an honor.

MARTIN: Sara Bloomfield is the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She was kind enough to join us in our studio today to share part of Holocaust Remembrance Day with us. We thank you so much for stopping.

Ms. BLOOMFIELD: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Holocaust Remembrance Day starts at sundown tonight. I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News.

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