June 24, 2009
USA TODAY OP-ED BY SARA J. BLOOMFIELD
A Time to Confront Hate: Officer’s Legacy at Holocaust Museum
A tour guide leading a group of Montana eighth-graders through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last week paused to say, “God bless you.” A visiting couple said, “We just felt it was important to come. Please send our thanks and prayers to Officer Johns’ family.” A security officer and a Holocaust survivor gave each other a comforting hug.
In these small but gracious acts, I have seen empathy and determination in the countless visitors who have come through our doors in all the days since alleged murderer James von Brunn took the life of our beloved security officer, Stephen Tyrone Johns.
For the Museum’s founders, the challenge was to create a fitting memorial to the unique tragedy of the Holocaust in a way that would forever teach its lessons about the dangers of anti-semitism and unchecked hate.
Two weeks ago today, hate came to our front door. Officer Johns, known for his warm smile and outgoing personality, was murdered by an avowed white supremacist. We are grief stricken at this horrific act that left a family without a husband, son and father.
Many targets of hate
Like most haters, von Brunn’s anger isn’t directed at one target. It includes Jews, blacks, the federal government, democracy and no doubt others. And like many haters, he has publicly paraded his venom on his Web page.
It was only his ability to turn his twisted anger into murder that finally cast a global spotlight on his beliefs. Americans were abruptly reminded that there are people among us whose hatreds would destroy the very things that bind civil society together: our common humanity and democratic values. The museum was established to stand vigil over that threat. The Holocaust, after all, was not perpetrated by monsters, but by human beings behaving monstrously. Hate - and indifference to it - cannot be fully eradicated; it is knitted into our DNA.
The Holocaust did not begin with mass murder; it began with a government-sponsored climate of hate and scores of discriminatory measures. And most went along. In the early 1930s, German professors silently watched as their Jewish colleagues were forcibly removed from their teaching positions; judges sat by as the judiciary was “cleansed of Jews”; and doctors welcomed the opportunity to increase their patient load as Jewish physicians were forbidden to treat non-Jews.
People acquiesced in the Nazis’ persecution of Jews for many reasons. Their motivation is not the point. What mattered was that public acceptance emboldened the Nazis to broader and more aggressive action and, ultimately, their Final Solution.
Bystanders to Horror
The museum’s founding director, Jeshajahu Weinberg, once said that this is an institution “about bystanders, for bystanders.” The majority of us are neither victims nor perpetrators. Rather, we are the ones who must be vigilant against those who espouse hate and choose how to respond to them.
Our power over the haters is that empathy and courage, too, are part of our DNA. During the Holocaust, in every country, some people from every political persuasion and every religious background chose not to be passive bystanders. They will be remembered for all time at our museum.
History will soon forget von Brunn. But Officer Johns will long be remembered for the lives he saved. His sacrifice inspires us every day, and every act of confronting hate honors his memory.
Sara J. Bloomfield has served as director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for 10 years.