Fear? I get it. I’ve been afraid for my physical safety and my psychological well-being and for that of people close to me. I know that fear can warp people’s judgment and lead them to do stupid, even terrible, things.
But closely aligned with fear, yet actually its opposite, is something I do not get at all, something I cannot even fathom: the human capacity coolly and systematically to create and carry out plans for the elimination of people on the basis of some largely arbitrary common trait — a religious belief, an ethnic heritage, a tribal or national affiliation, a racial feature.
The Nazi extermination of Europe’s 6 million Jews during World War II — along with millions of Slavs, Gypsies, blacks and countless others deemed unworthy of life — stands alone in the scale and sophistication of its killing systems.
But there is no shortage of similar stains on the historical record, including the allegedly modern historical record. Every so often, it seems, one group of humans or another undertakes the vicious business of ridding itself of members of a group it has come to despise or find inconvenient. The early 20th century, for example, witnessed the slaughter of well in excess of 500,000 Armenians — some estimates run as high as 1.5 million — by forces of the Ottoman Empire in what now is eastern Turkey and Armenia. . .
On the Creve Coeur campus of the Jewish Community Center, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center keeps alive the documented record of the Nazi liquidation of the Jews, the chilling details of its methodical processes and the stories of some who, somehow, survived the ghettos, the rail transports, the forced labor camps and the death camps. The core exhibit marshals all the tools of professional museum storytelling — composition, lighting, historical artifacts, still photography, film and other multi-media technology — to create a powerfully affecting display of Jewish suffering and survival.
And just steps away — in a separate, brightly lit hall filled with rows of folding chairs — 30 oversized posterboard panels affixed to the walls and a video presentation bear witness to more suffering and survival. Not of Jews but of Muslims.
The impact of this simple, low-tech presentation — “Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide” — catches you off-guard. On two Sunday afternoon visits, I moved slowly around the room, re-learning the chronology of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the human firestorms that followed. I learned for the first time the stories of victims and survivors who eventually made their way to the United States and the St. Louis area.
The cumulative effect of the information and the personal accounts sickened me. Then I watched the video.