The Holocaust: An Event to Remember


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

            Most people’s idea of an enjoyable, relaxing vacation doesn’t involve killing fields, gas chambers or disaster zones. They would rather lie on the white sandy beaches of sunny Mexico. But as unorthodox as it is, the number of people visiting historical sites of death and suffering is growing every year. The Cambodian killing fields, ground zero and Aushwitz-Birkenau are some of the most infamous dark tourism attractions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. is no exception to the dark tourism label. But is there a difference between the killing fields of Cambodia and the Holocaust Museum? Dark tourism has an inherently negative connotation but that does not mean it is always harmful to acknowledge the past in a mature manner. In many ways the Holocaust Museum is the model of dark tourism because it exemplifies what it means to turn a macabre historical event into an educational masterpiece. That being said, the opening of the Museum was not without controversy. To this day critics argue that the authenticity and purpose of the Holocaust Museum are flawed. Philip Gourevich, the son of two Holocaust survivors, asks, “Is exposure to barbarism an antidote to that very barbarism?” (8). Gourevich points to the argument made by many critics that the videos, pictures and writing give it an entertainment value that undermines its educational role. J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, the two authors who coined the term “dark tourism,” argue that the Holocaust was a uniquely European event and that the Museum has no place in the United States. However, these critics are failing to acknowledge the extent to which education and memorialization are emphasized above entertainment and profit in every corner of the Museum. To ignore such a powerful historical event would be a failed opportunity to educate new generations about the dangers of indifference and hate. Although there are many examples of dark tourism exploiting historical events for profit and entertainment, the Holocaust Museum is not one of them. The Holocaust Museum is a positive form of dark tourism because it serves as a tool to educate and memorialize a historically important event.

To those who experienced the Holocaust first hand, the Museum is a place for remembrance. Every architectural detail was carefully planned out and made to be as authentic as possible to give the visitors an accurate representation of the time period. The staircase in the entry room resembles the tracks of the rail cars and the archway at the top is nearly identical to the one through which Jews entered Aushwitz-Birkaneu. There are over 5,000 artifacts, including pictures, videos, and a rail car used to transport Jews. These artifacts commemorate all of victims that experienced the Holocaust, including those who aided fleeing Jews, and remind survivors and Jewish relatives of the cruelty that existed between 1933 and 1945. As Bill Clinton expressed at the opening ceremony, “If this Museum can mobilize mortality, then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality” (1). Clinton is expressing the power the Museum has to celebrate the lives of those who died and those still living. The Museum furthers its role as a memorial by offering lectures, plays, concerts and interviews for survivors and relatives of victims. By walking the halls of the Museum they are reminded of the people and events, good or bad, that shaped their lives and brought them to their current state of being.

Critics of the Museum, such as Lennon and Foley, argue that the location and purpose of the museum make it a negative form of dark tourism. According to them, the Holocaust was an event that occurred in Europe and to have a memorial in the United States, a country with a Jewish population under 3%, is disrespectful. However, to say the Holocaust was uniquely European is ignorant. The forces of the Holocaust touched many people across the globe, from Gypsies in North Africa to Jews worldwide. It affected any country that accepted or denied fleeing Jews and it affected any country that fought in World War II, including America. The United States sacrificed thousands of American lives in the fight to preserve the human right to freedom of religion and pluralism. The fact that the pre-opening ceremony was held in Arlington National Cemetery, amongst the many thousands of Americans that lost their lives fighting on behalf of the Jews, is a testament to how appropriate the Museum’s location is. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, a genocide that occurs in any country is a crime for which every country should strive to prevent. Everyone can learn from an event such as the Holocaust whether they experienced it first hand or barely at all. The purpose of the Museum is strong and clear: “for the dead and living we must bear witness.” The Museum reminds everyone, Jewish or not, the power of human evil and teaches them how it can be prevented.

In its essence, the Holocaust Museum is a hall of remembrance, a memorial to those who suffered. It is a promise that the injustices faced will never be forgotten or repeated. The decades following the Holocaust were known as the “Conspiracy of silence” because the world community wanted to forget their past. This silence was the worst thing that could have happened. Nobody could grieve the dead or learn from history. Societies create communal identities and make meaning of their past through their memories. Memory dictates how people relate to one another and enables the process of reconciliation in the aftermath of unjust events such as the Holocaust (Greene 117). Think of a wise old man sharing stories from his “glory days.” Some stories will be positive, some will be negative, but they all shaped his life and can teach the next generation critical lessons. Trying to forget those stories would be the real tragedy, as would trying to forget the Holocaust. As the old adage states, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” The Holocaust Museum promotes justice by forcing the world to take accountability for their actions.

Along with being a memorial, the central purpose of the Holocaust Museum is to educate the public in order to prevent future crimes of similar magnitude. According to Jeshajahu Weinberg, the founding director of the Holocaust Museum, “The most crucial aspect of the Museum’s educational role is demonstrating the applicability of the moral lessons learned from the Holocaust to current and future events” (19). Weinberg’s point is that the Museum goes beyond just educating people about the Holocaust; it “universalizes” the moral conclusions that society has come to through such a surreal experience. Although the Holocaust was a very specific event, the Museum teaches society that one person can make a difference and to be a bystander is to share in the guilt. Many Jews lived because there were thousands of people willing to help. It also teaches visitors that the human spirit is strong enough to triumph over evil; people simply need to take action. When countries and individuals are facing decisions on how to react to similar atrocities in the future, they need only walk the halls of the Holocaust Museum to determine what the result of their inaction will be. In this way the Museum serves as a warning monument and moral compass for millions of visitors every year.

Crucial to the role of the Holocaust Museum as an institution for education rather than a form of entertainment is its unique presentation as a historical narrative museum rather than a traditional history museum. This aspect differentiates it from negative forms of dark tourism. The core purpose of a traditional history museums is to collect, preserve, and display historical objects (Weinberg, Elieli 49). Traditional history museums are less effective than narrative museums at educating their visitors mentally, emotionally and morally because they convey information without providing context. Context allows visitors to identify with the time period and emotionally relate to an event rather than just learn about a technological achievement or work of art. Through primary writings, pictures, videos and diagrams the Museum educates visitors on every year of the Holocaust from before Hitler rose to power until after the war ended. Upon entering the exhibit visitors can choose to take an ID card of a Jew that experienced Nazi Germany. Throughout the Museum they can track the status of their individual as it was during the Holocaust. This chronological order and connection to a specific person from the time period help people grasp the gravity of the event. In a review written by Leon Wieseltier of The Baltimore Sun, “The Holocaust Museum is a pedagogical masterpiece” (1). Wieseltier argues that the layout of the Museum provides the most conducive environment for learning about the Holocaust because every individual exhibit is understood in the context of the previous exhibit. By presenting the material as a narrative, visitors are forced to think analytically and ask themselves what actions they would take if history were to repeat itself. This narrative presentation engulfs visitors and is the reason they spend, on average, two more hours in the Holocaust Museum than a traditional history museum (Weinberg, Elieli 49). If the Holocaust Museum were a negative form of dark tourism there would be an entrance fee to watch a series of movie clips of Jews being killed. But it doesn’t. It explains, in detail, every aspect of the Holocaust from before a single victim was touched until the liberation of the death camps.

Critics such as Lennon and Foley did not see the purpose of opening the Holocaust Museum and when they coined the term “dark tourism” they put the Holocaust Museum under that generalization. Lennon and Foley were wrong to do so. They looked at the Museum far too generally and did not acknowledge the power it has in every detail to teach its visitors how to prevent a future Holocaust. Every aspect of the Museum took time and planning and serves an important purpose. From top to bottom it emphasizes education and remembrance. Lennon and Foley ignore what an atrocious wrongdoing it would be to continue the “conspiracy of silence” by trying to forget an event so imposing. For survivors and relatives of the victims it filled that silence by providing an important memorial to commemorate those before them. For those who don’t know anything about the Holocaust it serves to educate them about the potential for human evil. For everyone it is a place where serious moral questions about genocide can be asked and applied to the current world. As Jimmy Carter said, “We must harness the outrage of our own memories to stamp out oppression wherever it exists” (1). The only way to “harness” our memories is to acknowledge them in the first place. Just because an historical event such as the Holocaust is dark does not take away from the constructive lessons that can be learned. What makes dark tourism good or bad is the way the material is presented and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. presents it perfectly.




Works Cited

Carter, Jimmy, President. “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust
Remarks at a Commemorative Ceremony.” Rotunda of the Capitol,
Washington D.C. 24 April 1979. Speech.
                                                                                                            Clinton, William J., President. “Remarks at the Dedication of the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum.” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,
Washington D.C. 22 April 1993. Speech.


Greene, Roberta R. Studies of the Holocaust: Lessons in Survivorship. London:

Routledge, 2011. Print.

                                                                                                            Gouretvitch, Philip. “Behold Now Behemoth.” Harper’s Magazine 07 1993: 55-62.
Proquest. Web. 4 May 2014.


Lennon, J. John, and Malcom Foley. Interpretation of the Unimaginable: The U.S.

Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., and ‘Dark Tourism’

International Journal of Tourism Research: 46-50. Print.


Weinberg, Jeshajahu, and Rina Elieli. The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New

York City: Rizzoli International, 1995. Print.

                                                                                                            Wieseltier, Leon. "Reflections on the Holocaust Museum." The Baltimore Sun
[Baltimore] 25 Apr. 1993: n. pag. Print.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *