Within one week of each other, two American moments will take place worlds apart, but they are inextricably linked. One event is a marker of how Americans and global citizens treat each other, while another is a museum dedicated to how we could all learn to do better.
A video of students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School standing far too close to a Native American leader went viral over the long 2019 Martin Luther King weekend. The students, wearing Make America Great Again hats, crowded the tribal elder as he conducted a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. Just steps from where King gave his “I have a dream” speech.
To some, the actions of the youths confirmed a narrative that America is becoming less accepting of the “other.” To some, this is a case of mistaken motive and teens being rushed to judgment by a hostile media mob.
Mass media from the left rushed to punish the students. Mass media from the right rushed to praise the youth. And at the end of the day, the shouting yielded nothing. It was just one more media blip in a country that seems to be moving farther from a sense of shared humanity.
The new Holocaust and Humanity Center opens in Cincinnati’s historic Union Station this weekend. It’s located just 10 minutes from Covington’s suburban campus. The opening comes at exactly the moment when the world needs to have a discussion on the lessons of the Holocaust and our shared sense of humanity.
Children and families today are facing an age of incredibly positive opportunities. Technology has transformed our economies, brought the world closer together, and illuminated our shared humanity. At the same time, young people today face a world where genocide, rising authoritarianism, and fascist leanings are once again rearing their heads.
That’s why this new Holocaust and Humanity Museum takes its visitors on a very different journey than most Holocaust museums. It begins with survivors who speak about choices. Choices that people made and make. Choices make a difference in the world. They state that everyone has the ability to choose. What they will do, how they will behave. They ask: what makes some behave this way and some that? To choose between good and evil? They say we will be exploring these questions throughout the exhibition, which is a paradigmatic story of evil, but with points of light illuminating the darkness.
Visitors then engage with twenty-two exhibits that unfold like chapters in a book. They take a journey first through the Holocaust, presented chapter by chapter, from start to finish, in new and novel ways. However, it’s the second part of the museum where visitors reckon with their own role in our shared humanity.
At the entrance to this Humanity exhibition, the narrators push visitors forward. Visitors review the qualities seen in the noble altruism of the upstander and the grace and resilience of the survivor. They then are asked: What is it about them that made them act in such inspiring ways? Do they possess traits that are special? Are they so different from us? What was/is it about them that made them act in the way they did? Do we all have those traits within us just waiting to be activated?
The six exhibits are the first of their kind in a Holocaust Museum. They present examples of the issues affecting our world and highlight individuals who worked to make a change. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, is featured for his work in America’s Civil Rights Movement. So too is the Cincinnati grassroots campaign that overturned the anti-LGBTQ law in that state.
As visitors depart, they are asked how they will make their mark on humanity – to make the world a better place. Bringing this question home is one of the most important contributions we can make to the global dialogue on humanity.
My colleague in this endeavor is noted Holocaust Educator and Designer Michael Berenbaum. He says “In this museum, our survivor hosts talk about choices. Choices that people made and will continue making. The personal stories will challenge us to think about what makes some choose between good and evil and how people can choose to become Upstanders in the face of humanity’s challenges.”
When the ribbon is cut at the Holocaust and Humanity’s Grand Opening this weekend, it will not only mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I hope it marks the beginning of a new era. That through this museum, its online presence, and the educational curriculum we developed, we can begin a new approach to thinking about our shared humanity guide humanity away from genocide, fascism, and authoritarianism.