Perhaps it’s been some of the political talk of banning refugees and immigrants based on religion or perhaps it’s evidence that some of the low-end politics of my association life have finally gotten to me, but during a recent day off, I somehow got it into my head to do something that I had meant to do for years: Go to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
I know, not your usual destination for a day off, but given the upsetting events of this political season and the annoyances of the latest round of “how do we keep the lights on, association style,” it somehow seemed to call my name.
Amidst everything, two impressions stuck with me that offered hope for a soul starved by the day-to-day. It’s a hope I know may be viewed as naïve, but I don’t care. Right now, I would welcome a bit of hopeful naiveté amidst all the cynicism.
The first impression
There are so very few quiet places in the world anymore. And even fewer in a large city like Washington, D.C. And certainly even fewer in museums populated by lots and lots of tired tourists and school kids.
It is reassuring to me that in an era in which we are constantly bombarded with digital stimuli, some still retain the simple power to shut everyone up. That was my overwhelming sensation at the Holocaust Museum.
Silence. Silence. Hundreds of school kids and tourists, and … silence. Apparently there are some things too horrible to ponder. Some things we cannot comprehend because of the enormity of the evil they represent. Some things retain the power to leave one speechless.
Oh, thank goodness.
The second impression
At the end of the tour, there is a set of filmed testimonials from survivors. The full script is here (and worth reading), but the moment in the film that stopped me in my tracks was this one, about a Jewish Partisan in Poland named Sam Goldberg. You can also find the recording here.
FILM TITLES: Sam Goldberg was trapped in a box-car when the train was liberated by the American Army. The doors of the cattle car were jammed. Sam was very close to death.
SAM GOLDBERG: I could hear talking … everybody … oh, they’re giving soup … they’re giving bread. … And here I’m just laying. … Why don’t they let me sleep? Just let me sleep. I don’t want anything. Let me sleep. Finally the door opens up. And I feel somebody is picking me up by my suit just to pull me up. Okay? Then it comes to my mind. … They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me. I’m not going to let them kill me. Now, after all this time, I went through so much, they’re going to kill me now? No way! They’re not going to kill me! And I grabbed this shoe and I felt for the person who picked me up. And I hit him with this wooden shoe. … The guy started crying. And he said, “I’m not going to kill you. I’m an American. I came to liberate you. You’re free.”
And just at that very moment, a collective double clutch, a gasp from an entire crowd as just about everyone choked up about what it could mean to make a difference.
Silence and a gasp. That’s what I want more of.
I know Americans, like just about everyone else, have at times committed terrible crimes in the name of nationalism and are guilty about just about every other “ism” in the book. Not to be overly political, but I would sure like a bit more naiveté that, yes, we Americans can be a force for liberation in the world.
And I know, day after day in our non-profit lives, we worry about budgets, we worry about staffing decisions. We worry about annoying board members. But often lost in all that is the original reason we went into this weird line of work. Often lost is how “non-profit” is a description of our tax status, yes, but not a description of why we exist. Often lost is the opportunity to take a chance in our dealings with members and staff and actually articulate a clear vision of why we matter, how we can make a difference and sometimes just be quiet.