Learning from indifference

Washington’s first Holocaust museum is scheduled to open in January, nearly 70 years after the American liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. The Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood will provide an institutional home for studying and preserving Holocaust history, including a forum to disseminate stories from the Pacific Northwest’s last concentration-camp survivors.

They are survivors, such as retired Boeing employee Robert Herschkowitz, of Bellevue. Originally from Belgium, Herschkowitz’s family escaped to France during WWII, only to be sent to a camp by the Vichy government.

“I’m going to remind people that it wasn’t only the Germans who killed the Jews, but the indifference of the rest of the world which allowed them to do it,” he told The Herald in 2009.

In May, Herschkowitz returned to Everett Community College as part of the college’s annual “Surviving the Holocaust” speaker series. He passed around a mustard-yellow cloth Star of David with a “J” stamped on it, the crude brand his grandmother had to display on her dress or coat. As Herald columnist Julie Muhlstein writes, “The Nazis, he said, killed 1.5 million Jewish children — almost 90 percent of all European Jews younger than 16. Showing a photo of a happy little boy, Herschowitz said, ‘That’s me.’”

In a few years, there will be no survivors, no living witnesses, to convey the raw, visceral history. Today, no one is left to recall the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18 or less-known horrors such as the Tulsa race riot of 1921, considered America’s worst incident of racial violence. In scale, they pale relative to the Holocaust, but they are part of a broader pattern of inhumanity and injustice that finds different incarnations, decade after decade. It’s why education and public history are critical.

The museum’s executive director, Dee Simon, told KPLU’s Gabriel Spitzer that the mission also is to tease out more Northwest-specific themes.

“We hope to invite and include other organizations in our community, organizations that represent Japanese internment, the tribes — other groups to come in and share this space with us, and make it a space for our community to really face the human rights issues that are here in the Northwest,” Simon said.

Here’s a useful reminder to breathe life into local efforts such as the Snohomish County Human Rights Commission, which hasn’t found its bearings. Truth is the antidote to intolerance. And good intentions without works are dead.

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