The Dallas Holocaust Museum: sobering reflections

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Prison uniforms from concentration camps are displayed behind barbed wire.

Within a few hours of opening, the new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum has proved itself to be a staple in education and moral justice for many years to come. 

I attended the Dallas Holocaust Museum two years ago, but its depth and focus have vastly changed in that short time. From the organized chaos of the previous museum, this smoothly organized, and much larger, institution serves as a deeply effective reminder of what can happen when we reject our human solidarity. 

Past the pristine foyer, guests watch a short video that defines the museum’s four themes of the Holocaust: perpetrators, victims, bystanders and upstanders. 

The group is then led through a few presentations on Jewish persecution, up a series of dark staircases, and towards the main exhibit, where the guests are greeted by a cacophony of Hitler’s harsh speeches. Fittingly, the first real artifact is a 1930s edition of “Mein Kampf,” a small taste of the horrors that are to come. 

The museum’s pathway meanders through an interactive and visually stunning chronology of the Holocaust. Whereas the old museum addressed only a few key examples due to space constraints, the new museum is free to sprawl, both spatially and intellectually. At times, the sheer amount of information and trauma can become overwhelming, but even this overload conveys powerful emotional weight.

Although there is a vast realm of written and audio information, a major highlight is simply the new placement of artifacts scattered throughout the museum. A whip, a Torah scroll, a rusted spoon, a yellow star — all now have their place in the museum, and indeed in history.

Clearly, the pride of the museum is its 1910s boxcar, which an attached sign proclaims is “the first boxcar exhibited in a Holocaust museum anywhere in the world.” Guests can actually step inside to watch testimonies of the horrors encountered within those same spaces.

Much of the new museum space is divided into three permanent exhibits, with the extensive Holocaust/Shoah Wing leading into the Human Rights Wing and Pivot to America Wing. The Human Rights Wing is a colorful jumble of maps and symbols, and it outlines the development of human rights protections post-World War II before demonstrating the ten stages of genocides with recent examples. One such example is from our own state, with the persecution of the Karankawa Indians of Texas. From this shift comes the relatively empty American wing, and although it lacks the detail of the previous wings, it serves an important educational purpose in highlighting our own historical involvement and publicizing underrepresented activists like Mexican Americans. 

Finally, the experience culminates in a separate room of reflection, which feels tomb-like with its engraved white walls documenting the names of beloved friends and family members. The old museum’s space for reflection was crammed into the walking path and was frequently interrupted by the bustle of other guests. Now the memory of the loved and lost are given the time and respect that they deserve. 

Junior Caren Buskmiller attended the old Holocaust museum with Crusaders for Life in her freshman year. 

“Mainly I just remember that it was crowded,” Buskmiller said. “It was hard to see the exhibit and think about it and pause, without feeling like you were bothering the other guests. I’m really happy that they made it bigger so that people can spend more time without feeling like they need to move along.”

Dr. Amy Fisher-Smith of the UD psychology department and Dr. Charles Sullivan of the history department both have reason to celebrate this new museum for UD. Every few years, they offer an interdisciplinary course called “Reflections on the Shoah,” and have established a personal connection with the Dallas Holocaust Museum. 

Sullivan stressed the benefits in the new museum’s shift towards a renewed educational perspective and the emphasis on the role of “upstander.” 

“The generation that actually personally remembers the Holocaust is passing away. It will probably be gone within ten years. So Holocaust education needs to take a new turn, and it can’t just be about what happened,” Sullivan said. “The Dallas Holocaust Museum is this turn from looking at the dynamics of the Holocaust to the human rights abuses of today, and I think you’re seeing that everywhere.”

“If Holocaust education is being done right, we look at the trauma of the Holocaust in order to inform ourselves today, so that we can be morally upstanding in ways that matter to us now,” Sullivan said. 

One modern experience where he advocates educational importance is the current border crisis. 

“Bystanders are just watching and don’t have any moral outrage, while upstanders say, well, there’s law, but there’s morality as well,” said Sullivan. “At our border, there are issues about human rights abuses and the applicants for asylum…the dignity of the human person should be our foremost concern.” 

In the case of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, a picture may really be worth a thousand words. Over the past few days, I have fallen asleep thinking about the photo of a mother and her children moments before their death by firing squad. 

This museum shows that these atrocities may happen time and time again, unless regular people choose to defend the vulnerable.

Remember your own mothers and your own families. And go see the museum for yourself. Twelve dollars is a small price to pay for access to this marvelous institution.

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