There is at best a terrible irony that in the same week that the President of the United States of America failed to condemn the racist hate groups that sponsored a murderous demonstration featuring anti-Semitic signs in Charlottesville, Virginia, I had the honor, in Washington D.C., of touring the David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation, and Research Center of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and then visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time.
Unknown pathways and unexpected symmetries pop up in the journey of publishing a book, and my visit to the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC earlier this month, bookended a similar visit nearly 20 years ago, in which I began my research for Even in Darkness, my historical novel based on a very unusual family Holocaust survival story.
Only the day before I traveled to Washington, meeting my three siblings and their spouses, I prepared my presentation of materials that our family plans to donate to the Shapell Center, a brand new facility of the US Holocaust Museum, which (from their website) will collect “evidence of the Holocaust before it is too late—before fragile documents and artifacts disintegrate and while those who can bear witness are still able to do so. The Museum collection is the foundation for ensuring the permanence of Holocaust remembrance, research, and education. With the rise of Holocaust denial, the power and authenticity of our collection assumes ever greater urgency.”
While creating my slide show, I watched news flashes of the violence in Charlotesville, and the further horror of the President’s responses. While photographing my great grandmother’s letters, written on a bread wrapper from the concentration camp Theresienstadt, and the condolence letter from Rabbi Leo Baeck, written to my great aunt on the death of her teenage son in Palestine, where he’d been sent as a 12 year old to escape Nazi Germany, I watched protestors in Virginia, marching with swastika signs.
We were very fortunate that the Director of Collection Services, led us through the Shapell Center, revealing the extraordinary care with which collected items are conserved, stored and recorded digitally for researchers to use. I can’t imagine a better home for my great aunt’s precious papers, photos and artifacts, an important contribution to her legacy, and our understanding of her life through two world wars and the Holocaust.
At the astonishing Museum of African American History and Culture, I was struck at the power of seeing the entire history of African societies and culture, slavery, emancipation, contributions in this country to politics, philosophy, arts, science and innovation all in one extraordinary multi-sensory presentation.
Exhausted toward the end, I was particularly moved by the reflection room, with the quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr. visible through the curtain of water, dropping like tears into a pool below. “We are determined to work, and fight, until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream”
Over two days, I was immersed in two museums’ extraordinary representation of the intolerance, indifference, and avoidance of responsibility of all those who stood by and watched the inhuman destruction of life, liberty and culture that devastated the Jews in Europe and African Americans in this country.
The thrill of being able to sign the copies of my book at the USHMC gift shop, was tempered by the uproar in the aftermath of Charlottesville. It will be another thrill when my sister announces at the annual 2017 Risa K. Lambert Chicago luncheon in support of the US Holocaust Museum next month, that our family will donate the papers and artifacts which I inherited from my great aunt and which contributed so much to my research and understanding of her experience in Germany. This collection will join my father’s letters, and an interview with my grandfather in the Museum’s collection.
In the end, I left Washington with words of comfort from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Etched in the long wall, were the following quotes, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”