Friday, May 8, 2009

All Beginnings Are Hard

I thought it was going to be easy to start a blog about my experiences as Executive Director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. I intended my first post to be about the panel discussion we hosted last night about the Los Angeles community's efforts to meet the needs of indigent survivors. (And I will post about that.)

But first I had to find a title for this blog. And all I could think of was an picture I saw in a book our archivist, Vladimir Melamed, Ph.D., showed me when we had our weekly meeting. The book is a collection of Holocaust photographs from the Bundarchiv in Berlin. Just flipping through the pages, one easily finds icons of that period: the picture of the bearded man, forced to daven in his talit tefillin while a crowd of soldiers taunt him; a woman forced to strip; two soldiers kicking a man lying on the street.

Then a page falls open to reveal a picture I had never seen. A group of about 20 Polish men clustered in an open, snow-covered field. The group stands sideways to the camera. Soldiers are not clearly present in the photograph, but the phtographs that preceed and follow it depict a mass shooting. Clearly, the men clustered together on this wintry day await their execution.

I note a minor detail. The two men closest to the camera appear younger than the others. And they are blowing on their hands.

Blowing on their hands. As one would while waiting for a bus on a cold day. But on this day, they are blowing on their hands while they wait to be killed.

As one might imagine, I encounter in my job more than my share of the kind of images one normally conjures up when one thinks of the Holocaust, images one hides from children until they are old enough. I find myself inurred to those pictures. Not because volume has desensitized me. But because they depict a reality that is incomprehensible. Not unbelievable; I know with every fiber of my being humans did to other human beings the things depicted in those pictures. But they are so extreme, I literally can not assimilate their meaning into my emotional understanding of the world.

And then I see a picture of young men blowing on their hands. Acting innocently, in the moment. Acting as normally as anyone would in the most abnormal of circumstances. Suddenly I shudder inwardly, and I find myself speechless. I have encountered the Holocaust. And there are no words to describe sufficiently the annhilation of innocence I see in this image.

How could I possibly think of a title?

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