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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Shoah: The Hebrew Word for Catastrophe

Shoah is the Hebrew word for “catastrophe”.  This term specifically means the killing of nearly six million Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War. The English-speaking countries more commonly use the word Holocaust, which is Greek for “sacrifice by fire”. (These words are written on the website of the Paris holocaust museum and probably appear near the entrance as well.)
We had a free afternoon yesterday and decided to head down to the Le Marais, an area of Paris that we have grown to love and appreciate. In addition to being the home of the best falafel in town, it houses the Jewish quarter and is filled with quaint and charming streets and stores. It's got a nice vibe and it's fun to get out of our own neighborhood and experience another aspect of the marvelous city of Paris.
Doug had done some reading on the holocaust museum that is housed there so off we went for lunch and to explore a new site. Lunch did not disappoint. Lines for both take away and sit down were well-formed but we got in fairly rapidly. We both had falafel pity sandwiches and I must say, the falafel did not disappoint. From there, it was a short walk to the museum. We were impressed by how expansive the exhibit was. Upon entering, there is a large cylinder with the names of the death camps and the Warsaw ghetto written on the exterior. A nearby plaque explained that the bronze cylinder evokes the chimneys of the extermination camps. It was a stark and chilling reminder of the reality and horror of the war. 
Another site that we encountered as we entered the exhibit area was the Wall of the Righteous: Le Mur des Justes. 

 This made a deep impact upon me because of the world we are currently living in. It reminded me of how important it is to oppose hateful rhetoric and denounce oppressive practices that seek to dehumanize any segment of our society. Of course, the walls with the names of those killed in the extermination camps are always powerful and moving.
The exhibition was very well done and free to the public. There are both permanent exhibitions and twice each year they bring in a temporary exhibit. I was amazed at how extensive the permanent exhibit was. It's a lot of reading but very well done with explanations in both French and English. A return visit is quite likely as it was just hard to take it all in. 
It was a bit tough to read about the French government's role in the perpetuation of the "Jewish solution." The Vichy government was equally as evil as the Nazi regime and cooperated perfectly with the oppression of Jews in France. Sarah's Key is a powerful novel that first exposed me to what is knows as the Vel' d'Hiver round up, a horrible season of rounding up Jews around the city of Paris. I am currently reading An Invisible Bridge which is also fiction but set during the time of WWII. The story features a young architectural student from Budapest who goes to Paris to study. Both of these novels are worthwhile reads for some insight into France. Of course, France suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, but it's important to note that there were also many Nazi sympathizer within the nation. I was impressed with the way in which France has been trying to deal with this ugly history. This plaque in particular was moving for me. The quote "After years of amnesia, France finally acknowledged the responsibility of the Vichy government in 1995..." That statement, after years of amnesia, indicating a collective attempt to reduce the negative history, or wipe it from the history of France because it is so painful stands as a stark reminder that we must embrace our full history, especially the ugly and shameful parts, so that those deeply injured by the events will feel seen and heard and so that we see how it unfolded so that we never allow such a thing to unfold again. 
Of course this wasn't our first exhibition on WWII or the holocaust. You do not live in Europe for almost 20 years and skip over the ugly and searing history that the war left on this continent. We have visited Dachau and stood before the ovens where thousands were burned. I visited the Ten Boom home in Holland to see where this passionate family risked everything to hid Jews from the Nazis. We have been to Normandy and visited the WWII museum and stood on Omaha beach imagining the carnage of June 6, 1944. We have been exposed to the devastating circumstances of how people were torn from their livelihoods and treated like animals on the way to a near certain death. But this exhibit moved me deeply because of the current state of our world and the less than enlightened man who is currently the President of the USA. He throws around his rhetoric, mentions nuclear warfare as if it were child's play, while lacking a seemingly acute sense of what war really means. He sports a nationalistic furor that at times dehumanizes others and it is often couched in subtleties that indicate a white nationalism is really what lies at the heart of what he's touting. I get a sense from his propaganda that he elevates certain human beings over others and there is nothing to say about this except that it is dead wrong. I am particularly disturbed by the Christians who continue to either actively support him or sit idly by, maintaining their silence because they don't want to rock the boat or upset people. 
It is here that the wall of the righteous comes into my mind. It is here that I realize that it is sinful to sit idly by and not rock the boat. The boat is being rocked by a force that is at the very least unhelpful and at its very worst, devastatingly harmful. I must denounce in no uncertain terms Robert Jefferies, the Baptist pastor from Dallas who affirmed that it was Trump's right to take down North Korea with a show of force. I must denounce all forms of white nationalism that parades itself as patriotic righteousness when in reality it is simply a form of racism that is too cowardly to actually come right out and state that. 
This photograph, near the end of our time there, just about broke my heart in two.  She is a non-Jew, he a Jew. These marriages were eventually forbidden. Underneath the photograph the caption tells us that her sign says I am the biggest slut. I only go with Jews. His says I only bed German women. It just reminds me a little too much of how we try to regulate who can be married to whom and the ways in which we oppress people who want to be together who do not fit our ideal of what an appropriate relationship should look like.
I am no way stating that under Trump's leadership the US is behaving like Nazi Germany under Hitler. But I do feel at times we are careening a bit too closely to a society that lacks a broader understanding of the small steps that are taken on the road to dehumanizing others and justifying certain behaviors and attitudes in society that are deeply consequential. The less we value the whole of human life, the more likely we are to become immune to the ways in which oppressive systems are in place to dehumanize and devalue certain people, which in turn makes it easier to oppress them or go to war war with them or to cultivate an interior attitude that we truly are superior. The more we think of war as a casual solution, the less thoughtful we become about the resulting carnage. The more we lift up one people group over another, even one country over another, the more we allow our worship to be directed to nationalistic and patriotic loyalties even when those loyalties lead to the oppression of others. 
In every memorial or museum I've been to, the words NEVER FORGET are written. We must never forget that war is not a good solution. We must not have national amnesia that refuses to recognize the sins of our past thus never take responsibility for them. We must never allow a national fervor to supersede a global peace. We must never forget that God so loved the world...and therefore so must we.