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Elie Wiesel and Oprah Winfrey at Auschwitz Speak About the Relevance of the Holocaust Today

Jerry Fowler interviews USHMM Director Sara Bloomfield


JERRY FOWLER: Our guest today is Sara Bloomfield. She is the Director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Sara, welcome to the program.

SARA BLOOMFIELD: It is my pleasure to be a part of it.

JERRY FOWLER: Well Sara, you were just honored for twenty years of service to the Museum. You first joined the Museum before it was even a hole in the ground. Looking back when you started, did you have any idea that the Museum would have the stature that it has now?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: No, I could not have possibly imagined what an important institution this would become in the nation, in the world, and also how world events would in a way conspire to make its message, in some ways, almost more important in the 21st century than in the 20th.

JERRY FOWLER: In what ways do you think its message is more important?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Well I think we are headed into a century where we have a lot of big lessons from the 20th century that we have not yet learned, at a time when technology is going to change our options, our opportunities, create a lot more uncertainty and choice, and I think museums like ours, which in my mind are about moral discernment, and you know kind of imposing that moral lens on everything from public policy to science to personal decisions in life is going to be needed, and there will be fewer places that people can go to get that.

JERRY FOWLER: What is it that you think that members of the public who go through the Museum walk away with in terms of moral discernment?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Well I hope they walk away with understanding that individuals can play a role in history, that we are not passive bystanders. Our founding director said about this institution once, he said “I created a Museum about bystanders, for bystanders,” and I think in many ways this Museum is a Museum about human nature. Part of human nature is how easy it is to be a bystander in life, how easy it is to rationalize our behavior in life, and I think it puts in front of people a harsh reminder that it does not have to be that way, and that each of us as an individual owns that responsibility, whether it is our own behavior or how we hold our public officials accountable for their behavior.

JERRY FOWLER: It would seem to me in some ways that the essence of the Holocaust—and so the story that is at the heart of this memorial—is one where as complex as it was, there was a lot of black and white at the end. Yet in our lives, we are always dealing with gray.

SARA BLOOMFIELD: That is true, and in fact, I think you have actually made the point for why, against this particular bit of history, it is so easy for those challenges to our own responsibilities in the world to come out, because most situations in life are more nuanced as you say. I do think, because I have wondered, “Why is this Museum so much more powerful than other museums that I think start to touch on the same issues?” And I think it is because there are not a lot of people defending Nazism. There are not nuances in the good and evil here, so against that, I mean you are asking here in the Holocaust, those people who spoke out or who risked their lives in those circumstances, we're challenging Americans to take risks under much easier circumstances here, so I think that that is, in some ways we are saying to people, “For sure, you can step up to the plate in the safety and freedom of America, when those people did that, when the stakes were so much higher.”

JERRY FOWLER: We have been talking about the institution as a Museum but I think you often emphasize that it is a memorial museum, and as a hard as a memorial-

SARA BLOOMFIELD: It is a living memorial.

JERRY FOWLER: A living memorial to victims of a particular historical event. As that historical event gets farther away, does that somehow change the memorial function?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: I actually do not think it does. I think if you read our founding documents where they called for this living memorial, I think the notion was that the most powerful memorial you could pay to these victims would be to act to prevent future crimes, and to do so in the name of those victims, and that is what our generation must seek to do, and what future generations must seek to do. We know that the problem of hatred, of antisemitism, of genocide, did not end in 1945. They are not going away in the near future. This Museum is saying, “Acting against those things, preventing them, responding to them, is the memorial of this institution.”

JERRY FOWLER: And so you kind of led into my next question. How does this issue of responding to genocide—the Museum, the memorial obviously has been very active on Darfur—how does that serve the memorial function?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Well I think that the most important thing we can do for our public is to educate them to the continuing problem of genocide and their responsibilities, the things they can do in the face of it, as well as work with public policy officials, people who are really, if you will, on the front lines, who can really do something more concretely and more immediately. The Museum works with both; they work with the public to educate them and have them be supportive and encouraging of their public officials, and also give the tools to the public officials. Once genocide has broken out, it is so much harder to stop, so we need lots of people—the United States—whether they are in official positions or not, caring about this issue and doing things to prevent it. We are a long way from that, but this institution has been a leader in doing that. And as far as I am concerned, if the steps we are taking are saving a few lives—I hope we are saving more and I hope that in the future we will be able to save many more—but what more powerful memorial could there be to the victims of the Holocaust than that?

JERRY FOWLER: At the heart of the Holocaust was of course antisemitism, a virulent form of antisemitism that was carried to its extreme. Let me ask you, do you think antisemitism is on the rise today?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Absolutely, and surprisingly in the lands where the Holocaust took place we see it, as elsewhere in the world, predominantly in the Islamic world, but our new exhibition Tracing History: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how much that dangerous piece of antisemitic propaganda proliferates in the world today helps makes this important point.

JERRY FOWLER: What is the function of a Holocaust memorial in dealing with the issue of antisemitism?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: It is a very important function. First of all, I think the history of the Holocaust is the most extreme example, obviously, in the power of antisemitism and the danger of unchecked antisemitism. One of the things the Museum tries to do for all of our visitors is to impress upon them that although they come here to see a history that essentially ended in 1945, the problems still continue today, whether it is the problem of genocide, the problem of hate and antisemitism, these are issues that are probably never going to go away, certainly not in our lifetime, and the Museum is really a challenge to everybody to be vigilant about these issues. Ninety percent of our visitors are non-Jewish. When they read things in the paper today about rising antisemitism, I am not sure that they have the same concern that members of the Jewish community would have, so our goal is to remind people that this problem of antisemitism and genocide are now our problems today.

JERRY FOWLER: A lot of what you are talking about is the Museum and the memorial interacting with the American public which is probably overwhelmingly who comes here. What about the publics in other places where—you mentioned Europe and the Arab world, Iran where antisemitism seems to be an increasing problem?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Well that is a very important audience for us. Certainly we get many international visitors, but our Web site gets about 15 million visitors this year, and last year alone, 70,000 of our visitors came from the Islamic world, so that is a very important tool to reach people as we know the Internet is being used for purposes of good and ill and we have a great opportunity on our Internet to reach these audiences. One of our most important projects is to translate our Web site into languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, as well as other key languages like Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, because this is a worldwide problem, and we are the world’s leading online resource on the Holocaust and genocide and we want to be available to these people in their native languages.

JERRY FOWLER: It seems that in a lot of places, Holocaust denial is part and parcel of antisemitism.

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Absolutely. It is just really another version of antisemitism, and ever more reason why we need to be available to the individual sitting in Tehran who may hear from his President that this thing called the Holocaust did not happen, he does a Google search, ends up on our Web site, we would like to have for him or her comprehensive, accurate information on the history of the Holocaust in Farsi.

JERRY FOWLER: If we look back, it has been now over sixty years since the end of the Holocaust, and it has been twelve years since the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington—


JERRY FOWLER: Thirteen. I lose count. And we still see situations like Darfur. We see resurgence perhaps of antisemitism We see problems that are the problems we have seen in the past. Do you think there is hope for the future?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Give us more than thirteen years. First of all, the Museum itself, alone, cannot address these issues, obviously, and thirteen years is not a long time to begin to make a dent, but I think that we are a moral voice, a reference point, if you will, a place, an icon that people can refer to, nationally and internationally, to be a platform, whatever, about these issues, and I think, I do not know what we are exactly going to achieve here. I know we cannot not try; absolutely, because that is the memorial. We have got to try, and I think that I would be less hopeful if there were not a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

JERRY FOWLER: Sara Bloomfield is the Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Sara, thanks for being with us.

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Thank you Jerry.