'Nazis didn't fall out of the sky in January '33': The Holocaust Museum's director on warning signs of fascism

'Nazis didn't fall out of the sky in January '33': The Holocaust Museum's director on warning signs of fascism

Sara Bloomfield, 69, is director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She lives in Washington.

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Q: This museum is, I would say, deliberately designed to inflict psychic distress. There's no other way to do it but break down people's barriers and show them horror that will linger in their minds for life. People will spend a few hours here and come out emotionally wrecked. What's it like to work here?

A: Can I question your premise?

Q: Absolutely!

A: The goal here is to educate, not to shock. Present the history so that people think about big questions like: What made it possible? How did it happen? What were the different responses people had? There are only three places in the exhibition where we show what I would call extremely graphic imagery. We have to do that to be faithful to history. But they're done very carefully. And the goal really is to get visitors asking questions, and yes, we want them to come out disturbed, but not so emotionally raw that they just say, "That was a terrible thing." and go on to something else. We wanted the museum to be kind of a mirror on human nature. Maybe I didn't answer the question you asked. You asked about working here.

Q: Yes. But your answer was great!

A: We're learning a lot from our audiences, and I can give you some examples. One of the things that happened in the early years that led us to realize that we didn't even understand the potential of the museum was when Charles Ramsey was the D.C. police chief. This was when D.C. was the murder capital, and we brought in a new police chief. He came to visit the museum. At the end of the visit, he asked himself a very good question: I saw my own profession in so many of the photographs in this museum. What was my profession doing on the walls? What was their involvement in this? Working with him and the Anti-Defamation League, we developed a program for new recruits in the police department who would study Holocaust history and the role of policing: How is it that these ordinary policemen gradually, over time, become a part of this system? That took off, and now we have a big program for law enforcement. Here was somebody who came in and saw potential in the museum we ourselves never saw. Now we do a similar program with judges, looking at the role of the German judiciary, because lawyers and judges played a huge role in Nazisim and the Holocaust. Also we have one for the military.

Q: Sure. Ten years ago a security guard here was shot and killed by a white supremacist. Do you have any thoughts or advice for people who increasingly now feel that they are targets for racist violence?

A: We commemorated that horrific event this summer. One of the things I think the museum teaches is that human nature is capable of a lot of bad things. There are obviously always going to be haters in the world. We know from recent scholarship that a lot of people who didn't originally have anti-Semitic views participated in the murder of Jews. What makes people do that? Complicit in a crime when they didn't even share the ideology originally? And some of it leads to very ordinary things, like greed. They were going to get career advancement, or they were going to benefit from plunder. Some of it was for peer approval. A lot of these are ordinary, human motivations. The other thing we know about human nature is we all know how to rationalize our behavior.

Q: What worries you most about the state of the world now?

A: I worry about what I think is a real decline in the teaching of good history. History majors are down more than any other major. Humanities are already down compared to STEM, which I can understand - STEM is important. But I believe the humanities are incredibly important if we want to create an engaged, responsible citizenry.

Q: I just thought about that word "humanity."

A: Yeah. It's the study of what it means to be human. Nazis didn't fall out of the sky in January '33. That movement is rooted in German history, and you can trace those roots back into the 19th century, and you can see a lot of strands coming together. That's true of the moment we live in. It didn't just happen yesterday or last year. We should think about our vulnerabilities. Are we equipped to have a conversation about the questions artificial intelligence is going to present? Probably not. The first people systematically murdered were not Jews but Germans with mental and physical disabilities. Who participated in this? Doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers, judges. You have people you think are highly educated, well-trained, presumably would have a moral sense. They would have said they were working for the common good. This was considered scientific advancement.

Q: Are there ways to prevent or stop genocide?

A: There are some early warning signs. There's a long lead-up with previous violence, the state legitimizing differences and fostering that conflict over time. State-sponsored violence, control of the media. You have to have a whole constellation.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.