Children and teachers are gunned down while in school. Riots break out over racial prejudice. Foreigners are under suspicion and threatened with deportation. Places of worship become targets for angry militants brandishing assault rifles. All of these tragedies could—and should—have been prevented if only we humans could and would learn from our past.
There is a museum in Los Angeles that everyone should visit. It opened in 1993 and is “a symbol of society’s quest to live peacefully together” and “an important resource on how to achieve that goal.” I first visited the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) when I was an eighth-grade teacher. The social studies curriculum included World War II and I was looking for a way to engage my students with the material. On the day we visited, each of my students was given a picture of a child that had been in a concentration camp. Each student carried this picture until the end of our visit. Then, it was fed through a machine that printed out a simplified version of what happened to that child. Did she live or die? Was he moved to different camps? Did her family survive? All the students carried this information home.
We also walked down a simulation of a German street. Recordings of conversations about the political context played around us. We walked through an area that was modeled after rooms where prisoners were gassed. We explored the Anne Frank exhibits. We charted places in the world where groups expressing hatred of others exist today. We went home convinced nothing like the Holocaust would ever happen again.
My second visit to the MOT was even more powerful. I wasn’t teaching eighth grade that year but was asked to go to help monitor students. I didn’t know all the students and I was uncertain how they would behave. When an old man came out to greet our bus, I was afraid the students would eat him for lunch. But this was a Holocaust survivor and he soon had all these students captivated by stories about his family, the camp he was sent to, how he survived his ordeal, and how he ended up in the US. Not one student acted inappropriately.
After I retired, I returned once more—this time with a friend who was visiting from the East Coast. We listened to a talk given by a Holocaust survivor. He told of his family being rounded up and stuffed in a cattle car and sent to a camp. His mother did not survive the trip. He was 10 or 11 at the time; one night, one of the guards threw him against a barrack wall. Later in life, he had to have his kidney removed because it had atrophied from the damage. When the U.S. troops finally freed his camp, he hated everyone and wanted revenge. When asked what helped him, this survivor smiled down at an elderly woman seated in front and said, “I met my wife.”
The Museum of Tolerance is the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Somewhere along the way I decided to become a MOT member because I believe in the museum’s mission: “We hope to challenge visitors to confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world today. We hope visitors become witnesses to history and learn about what others are doing to make a difference and how to get involved.” Perhaps if we all got a little more involved, we could help eliminate the tragedies that seem to plague us rather than endure them.