Last October, during the half term break I realised a long-held ambition to travel to Washington DC. A fascination with American politics in turmoil, with the history of such a new country and the diversity of ethnicity and culture that a population of immigrants guarantees had made me want to see the capital city of the States close-up. I wasn’t disappointed; though we stayed in the more European surroundings of Georgetown, the short metro trip downtown tipped us out into the heart of a very different city, one where neo-classicism rubbed shoulders with plate glass, low-rise and yet imposing. It was great to see the White House, the Capitol, the Jefferson Library and the Supreme Court. We were lucky enough to get into Congress on one of the significant pre-impeachment debate days and the trip through the seat of power of the World’s only super-power will live on with me for a long time. A night time tour through the National Mall will do the same, the stunning memorials to Vietnam Veterans, Lincoln and MLK sear the memory as very few others can do. History feels young, raw and unfinished there in a way that I am not accustomed to in the UK, and it is very clear that the Americans that we met feel the importance of learning and telling stories as their country grows and changes.
That feeling of being in touch with the recent past was particularly striking on our last day in DC, when we visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum at the western end of the National Mall. Wonderfully curated and emulating one of the Eastern European prison camp buildings, the enormous amount of material in the museum tracks the development the Nazi State, the growth of religious, ethnic and cultural intolerance and hatred and the adoption of genocide as a ‘solution’ to the problems of a society under stress. When you enter the museum you are given an identity; by the time that you emerge into the Washington streets you have found out whether you lived or died. No-one who enters can be left unchanged.
And yet, in some ways, we as humans have learned little. Genocides persist. Discrimination, persecution, intolerance and hatred still blight societies too often. Denial of the Jewish Holocaust of WW2 is growing, and anti-semitism is a poison in Britain today. The Washington Holocaust Museum gives a powerful case study from 75 years ago, but equally every visitor is challenged explicitly and individually. What will you do to tell those who follow? What will you do to prevent genocide from happening again?
If you have time, in this week of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, take a little while to browse the museum’s website at ushmm.org, and encourage millennials to do the same. That duty falls to all of us.