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The Role and Relevance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The essential premise of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since its founding is that the Holocaust—the state-sponsored, systematic attempt to murder every Jew in Europe—was a watershed event that must always be remembered and will always remain relevant.

Forty years ago in the Report of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, the Museum’s founding chairman, stated that the Holocaust “was a unique crime in the annals of history,” and he went on to describe the importance of its lessons for the future, asserting that the Museum should present the particularity of the Holocaust as well as its contemporary significance: “The universal implications of the Holocaust challenge Western civilization and modern, scientific culture. What threatened one people in the past could recur to threaten another people or, indeed, all humanity.”

Elie Wiesel often said that no one’s future should be like his own past. That is why he envisioned a “living memorial” – a museum that would memorialize the victims, teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust, and work to prevent future genocides. The Museum’s role as a “living memorial” imposes a special responsibility for those charged as both stewards of memory and contributors to a better future. As America’s national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, we assume that responsibility with rigor, determination, and humility.

Elie also said, “The Museum is not an answer. It is a question mark.” Indeed, the Holocaust raises many questions that scholars continue to probe and that educators strive to provoke in advancing critical thinking about how and why the Holocaust happened, and what made it possible. In scholarship and education, the Holocaust should be meticulously documented and examined with the highest level of precision and care. It can and should also be carefully analyzed for areas where there may exist some similarities with and differences from other events, both historical and contemporary, utilizing appropriate contextualization and avoiding simple answers to complex questions. However, the increasing frequency and pervasiveness of careless comparisons and simplistic equivalencies to the Holocaust are a problem. This misuse of the Holocaust demeans the memory of the victims, is offensive to survivors, and does not advance understanding of the past or the present.

The Museum’s work to advance quality Holocaust education is designed to promote thoughtful reflection on the causes, events, and consequences of the Holocaust as well as the deeper issues at stake. It stimulates thinking about such issues as: the nature of antisemitism, hate, and extremist ideologies; the fragility of societies and democracy; the role of individuals and institutions; the consequences of indifference and inaction; and a range of motivations that influence human behavior.

Education depends on scholarship, which has grown substantially in recent years and continues to mine fresh sources in order to generate important new knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust. The Museum has been actively building a collection of record on the Holocaust in order to support ongoing original research, the vital field of Holocaust studies, and our educational mission.

In addition to education and scholarship, Elie Wiesel believed that one of the most meaningful ways to honor the victims was to do for the victims of genocide today what was not done for the Jews of Europe who were totally abandoned by the world. That vision has become another pillar of the Museum—our work to advance global efforts to prevent and respond to contemporary genocide.

Our founders probably did not envision that the world we live in today would be so plagued by hate, antisemitism, and various forms of Holocaust denial as well as continued genocidal threats. They did envision the timeless importance and relevance of the Holocaust as an event to be memorialized with dignity, researched with rigor, and taught with care so that we can accurately remember the past and responsibly learn from it. That vision animates the Museum’s work today and every day.

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