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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making Holocaust Real

The central reality of the Holocaust -- death -- has been understood for half a century. The realitinside which that death occurred -- time -- has barely been grasped. Now, with an unprecedented exhibition of artifacts hidden by the inhabitants of a ghetto in Lithuania, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is able to teach not only about Holocaust death but also about Holocaust time.


Those who haven't studied the Holocaust sometimes have a sense of it as a mass human extinction, an almost passive one, as if the earth of Nazi-occupied Europe opened in 1939 and closed in 1945, and in that seismic moment 6 million Jews were swallowed into the abyss.


Six million Jews were indeed devoured during those years, but they didn't simply disappear into a void. They were systematically and individually murdered -- by shooting or gassing, by deliberate starvation or overwork, by diseases endemic to places of brutal confinement. And until they were murdered, they lived remarkable lives that illuminate the possibilities and extremities of human experience.


The simplistic image of a passive extinction of 6 million lives ignores the infinite variety and protracted agony of Holocaust suffering. It ignores the reality of watching your parents shot to death; your children ripped away to be machine-gunned in a ditch; your brothers, sisters, cousins and friends "deported" to killing centers. It ignores the loss of your dignity, decency, home, possessions, sustenance, strength, self-respect. It ignores the pain of hanging on to life for months or years as you witness your losses mount and you wait, day by day, for your own random death. It ignores, in short, the pummeling reality of Holocaust time.


The image limited to statistics also ignores expressions of the self that under those circumstances seem utterly incomprehensible: creativity, spirituality, endurance, defiance, resistance and even, sometimes, hope.


This image ignores, too, the psychological manipulations used to make the Holocaust run smoothly. In the ghettos, where the Jews were stored and forced to work until they could be killed, the Germans took advantage of the profoundly human inclination to want to believe that the terror surely would end, that no fellow human beings could be so cruel forever, or on such a scale. Wanting their victims to continue working, the Germans would promise that there would be no more "actions" of mass murder. They recognized that even the flimsiest pretext for hope could make it easier for them to control a desperate population.


Finally, the limited image of the Holocaust ignores the determination of the victims to be more than statistics. They wanted others to know that they and their fellow Jews had once lived, that they were killed, who killed them, how they were killed and how they resisted, against all odds and in every possible way, their almost inevitable deaths.


The just-opened exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, "Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto," is a corrective to the simplistic image. The story it tells illuminates a significant dimension of the Holocaust experience: the dimension of time.


The ghetto in the city of Kovno, Lithuania, was a place in which Jews were confined, fed starvation rations and forced to do slave labor until they were killed. It was a place in which, from time to time, hundreds or thousands of Jews were rounded up for execution by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. It was a place in which impossible choices were foisted on a leadership that sought to protect a community from an unthinkable fate. It was a place in which Jews did all that they could to endure, sustain their dignity, hold on to their traditions, defy their oppressors through creativity and community, and resist them by finding ways, in the face of impossible realities, to fight back physically.


This exhibition can document that story because, at the risk of immediate death, the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto systematically recorded their experiences. They did so in writing, photographs, artistic images, music, memoirs, statistical graphs and religious treatises. They recorded German orders and the murderous actions of both the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. They documented the community's inexorable destruction, the day-to-dayness of the terror and the vicissitudes of despair, hope, defiance and resistance. They hid these records, and after the Holocaust, a few of the survivors retrieved them.


Now these materials tell the world the story of this remarkable community's life. But they also illuminate the experience of the Holocaust itself, as well as the possibilities in the world for evil, good, death, life, tragedy, nobility.


Two centuries before the Kovno Ghetto was created and destroyed, the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, wrote that "Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption." This exhibition displays the triumph of remembrance over forgetfulness, and the triumph by the ghetto to record its experience over the efforts by the Germans to keep that history unknown.


In this triumph, it is the murderers who are documented in infamy, and it is the victims of the Kovno Ghetto who achieve the immortality of abiding memory. May their memory be a blessing for us all.





Walter Reich is the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He contributed this comment to the