> Weekly Torah Portion > Beginner > Brainstorming with Baars

Why Is There a Holocaust Museum?

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

What drove Yitro to join the Jewish people?

"And Yitro heard..." (Ex. 18:1)

Rashi: What did he hear that made him come? ... the war with Amalek. He came and converted.

Question: Why is there a Holocaust museum?

You might say, "How could you ask such a question?"

I am not saying that a Holocaust museum exposing Nazi horrors and Jewish suffering is not justified. I am just asking a completely different question.

Being somewhat familiar with how difficult it is to build a giant museum in the middle of Washington DC, some of the most prized real estate in the world, I am asking what drives people, especially people who didn't suffer the Holocaust personally, to be so motivated to build such a thing. In fact, why are there so many Holocaust museums all over the world?

Chinese leader Mao murdered approximately 70-80 million Chinese. Isn't there one Chinese man or woman out of the billion Chinese in China and around the world who is so outraged that he/she needs to build a museum, or just a monument? How about a plaque on a wall in Chinatown!?

Isn't there a Russian somewhere in the world that needs to tell the story of Stalin's trail of death and destruction that took the lives of over 20 million people?

Conversely, are the lack of memorials to the Tibetan suffering because we understand what that is all about? What about the massacre of a million plus Armenians? Is the Holocaust so unique that we not only have to build a museum in Israel, but we have to create memorials in just about every major city around the world that will let us? Is it possible that intuitively every Jew, and no small number of non-Jews, attest to the notion that the Holocaust tells a different story than sheer numbers, sheer brutality, sheer horror and barbarism?

Is the Holocaust so inexplicable, so strange, that we need a museum to grapple its enormity?

Not only that, but people come hundreds and even thousands of miles to see what it has to say.

And what does this phenomenon say?

I have been told that Holocaust museums are one of the top tourist attractions. What message does it contain that doesn't exist for the Chinese, Tibetans or Armenians, that forces us to build an edifice to its misery?

This alone would be a massive question, but there is so much more to this enigma.

In my home town of London they have a story of King Arthur. Apparently he had a round table and lived in Camelot. I have never knowingly been to Camelot since we have no record of where it is. In fact, Arthur left us no remaining records of his rule, we don't even have a family photo, Arthur, Guinevere and the little round tables.

Despite this lack of historical record, no one has marched on Whitehall to have it expunged from the history books and Iran is not planning a world conference of King Arthur deniers. Despite the fact that there is more evidence of a Holocaust than the First World War, amazingly enough, people around the world, almost in unison find the need to deny its occurrence.

It's as though one person is driven to testify and another is driven to deny. And, I would like to add, neither really understands why.

Yes, it's easy to say I need to build a museum so no one will forget, and it's easy to say I have to deny the Holocaust because it's really a big lie. And taken at just that, it's hard to argue. Except that there surely has to be other things that should not be forgotten, and yet they don't seem to have museums. And are there no other lies in the world that bother you so, that you have to have a conference only on this?

What bothers an otherwise disenfranchised Jew that he cannot live without building an edifice to its occurrence? What bothers an otherwise closed minded shmoe, that he cannot live without denying the Holocaust?

In fact, there is no other movement in the entire world, and possibly in the history of the world, about trying to prove a non-event. What meaning can there possibly be in living to prove something like the Holocaust didn't happen?

What drives them, both the attester and the denier?

I believe if you think about it, the force that propels people to dedicate and donate such huge sums of time, energy and money to tell the world in such immense proportions, is so enormous, that it must be this same force that spurs people to deny it ever happened.

Other than your space and natural history museums that we find scattered around the world, there is hardly an event, and definitely an event that occurred in only one place, that has so many edifices to its memory.

To me however, all this is not as remarkable as the incredible fact that our Torah predicted it will be.

18:1 "And Yitro heard..." Rashi: What did he hear that made him come? …...the war with Amalek. He came and converted.

This war with Amalek was no skirmish on the border. The Midrash explains that Amalek were vicious anti-semites willing to die to destroy the Jews. These were real Nazis. It was when Yitro heard this that made him want to join the Jewish people.

Talk about marketing anomalies. What kind of people are attracted to being Jewish when they read about Auschwitz? No warm and fuzzy "Fiddler-on-the-roof" tradition going on here. Somehow when it comes to the Jews, the worst stories make us the most appealing.

Listen again to what Rashi is saying. Something about Amalek is so convincing that Yitro, who had up until now stubbornly refused to join his daughter, son-in-law (Moses) and grandchildren into being Jewish, now had him singing psalms in the morning and downing herring at kiddish!

If such a thing is of such enormity, of such grand meaning, that it convinces an otherwise impartial bystander to be a Jew, then what would a person have to do if he didn't want to be such?

Deny it ever happened.

Yitro was convinced by the Holocaust of his time. He chose to live with the message and convert. It's as though the sky opened up and the voice of God announced, "The Jews are it."

But he had a choice.

The Holocaust proves God is with the Jews and once a person sees it, his only choice is to join or deny it ever happened. Now I know you are probably asking, how does the Holocaust prove God is with the Jews? And it's here that I tread very lightly and hopefully respectfully. 'Hard' is not the word to use when you try and understand and then explain the meaning and purpose behind the suffering of others.

For us Jews, the only value of an event is in its meaning or purpose. Glory and glamour fade, technology and prowess are but illusions, it's the meaning or purpose an event has, that produces its longevity.

When Jews avoid the inner spiritual meaning of an event, others deny its physical existence. It's what we call in Judaism, "Measure for Measure."

So let me leave you with a parable which, if you think about it, will answer the riddle.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg tz"l tells the story of a six year old boy who runs out into the street without looking. A car swerves and nearly hits the child. The car screeches to a halt and the little boy starts running.

The driver quickly gets out of the car, leaves the engine running and the door wide open.

The driver gives chase for two or three blocks. Finally, he catches the boy and starts screaming at him to be more careful.

"Who," asks Rabbi Weinberg, "was driving the car?"

The boy's father.

Why? Because only a father would care enough to leave his car and chase his child.

"Who," I like to ask, "was watching?"


For both, Yitro and the boy (the Jewish people), the same event has entirely different and almost impossibly incongruent messages and meanings.

Yitro sees the father chasing his son through the streets and his scolding, as sign of love. The father is leaving his place and willing to go to extreme lengths to teach the boy a lesson.

But for the boy, his emotions are going to range from anger, hate and maybe even abuse. Nevertheless, nothing gets him more furious then the day his therapist says to him, "Maybe it never really happened."

That's when he builds a museum.

* * *


Question 1: Turkey denies that there was a genocide of approximately 1.5 million Armenians. Does their denial bother you the same way deniers of The Holocaust bothers you?

Question 2: Who is worse: someone who denies The Holocaust, or someone who says there should be a Holocaust?

Question 3: A Holocaust museum has been built, and it is divided into two sections, one larger than the other. One section will be devoted to the righteous people who helped save Jews, the other to Nazi's who perpetrated the horror.

Which should get the bigger section?

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