Remembering What We Value
By Bernie Steinberg
Director, Harvard Hillel
James von Brunn is a passionate hater of Jews, blacks, and the soul of America as a place where respect for difference is a condition for human dignity: not only are all human beings equal, but each is unique. This recognition of difference applies both to individuals and groups.
And so, von Brunn chose an appropriate venue to express his rage at America.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum celebrates the dignity of human difference. It presents a narrative that unapologetically underlines the distinctive centrality of the Jews in the Holocaust while including and articulating the specific identity of other groups both victims and heroes, including the role of Soviet, British, and U.S. troops in the liberation of Europe. In this story, human differences are not homogenized. Nor do differences exclude. An overarching theme is interdependence between diverse people whose distinctive identities are a ground for dignity and appreciation.
As the name suggests, memory is at the heart of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Memory is not simple recall. In Biblical terms, the Hebrew root for 'remember' (zkr) means to be mindful, to be aware, to pay heed. Memory suggests involvement, concern, engagement, and responsibility. It is often connected with a verb of action. Memory then concerns moral consciousness, action, and identity. When I remember what I value; what deeply concerns me; what moves me to action; when I know where I stand-- I strengthen my identity. .When I lose my memory, I forget who I am; I lose my identity. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum then provokes reflection on identity and values.
Like many American Jews, my family memories include the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe. Last summer, 18 family members took a journey of identity. We visited the towns in Ukraine from where our families fled to the US between the world wars. In Kupel, a 93 year old woman described the day in November 1941 when Nazis rounded up and murdered 900 of the 1000 Jews in my mother's birthplace. "Do you want to see the mound where they are buried?" she asked. "It's close by--down the road right by the old mill". The old mill?! I had heard of the mill. It had been recounted and described in family stories: it had been built and run by my great-grandfather.
The accumulated sense of our journey was. "What if the family had remained in Europe? Thank God we escaped! How grateful that we had made it to America, where we had been born; raised, and thrived. At one point when discussing the gap between our experience in America and the memories of our family in Europe, my cousin, a former CEO of United Airlines said: Anti-Semitism still exists, and grows yet it does not define us as it did our parents and grandparents.
James von Brunn's murderous attack at the U.S. Holocaust center does not contradict this insight. On the contrary, it reminds us that in a free society, a culture that is based on appreciation for difference, where our moral agency is strengthened, we need not be paralyzed by fear, nor can we permit ourselves to become morally complacent. The heightened awareness that hatred is alive, well, and contagious --provoked by a World War II navy officer -- can mobilize us to action and renew our commitment to civic engagement, the blessed opportunity and obligation offered by this country.
Dr. Bernard Steinberg is the President and Director of Harvard Hillel.
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