Nazi Germany and Virginia Holocaust Museum Essay
Nazi Germany and Virginia Holocaust Museum
In this paper, I articulate my experience at the Virginia Holocaust museum, paying particular attention to my emotional and cognitive reactions. As a student of social work, I benefit from knowledge of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, which I employ in reflecting upon the dichotomization and construction of the other that fueled the Nazi intolerance towards Jews and other ethnically diverse populations and led to their genocide. By examining the current genocide in the South Sudan, I highlight commonalities between the Holocaust and the modern plight of marginalized South Sudanese populations.
Finally, I utilize the NASW ethical principles of Social Justice and Dignity and Worth of the Person to imagine how I would have reacted, as a social worker, to the Holocaust. Through this process of reflection, I gain insight into the mechanisms of intolerance and better position myself to be a positive change agent. Keywords: dichotomization, ethics, genocide, holocaust, Nazi, social work, Sudan Examining the Holocaust from a Social Worker’s Perspective Introduction
The purpose of this paper is to reflect upon my experience at the Virginia Holocaust Museum on September 11, 2012. By providing a detailed and thoughtful examination of one of the most shameful chapters in human history, the Virginia Holocaust Museum elicits a strong emotional and cognitive reaction. As a student of social work and an active participant in the current political landscape, I am able to use current events and my understanding of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics as a lens in which to examine the atrocities of the Holocaust.
By understanding the threads of intolerance that connect the Holocaust to the current genocide in the Sudan and applying the NASW ethical principles of social justice and the dignity and worth of the person, I am able to gain a richer understanding of the Holocaust and the millions of lives it affected. My Experience Growing up in the Virginia public school system, impersonal statistics and broad textbook generalities taught me about the Holocaust in history class.
While I remember feeling unsettled and recognizing in some undefinable way that this event was truly terrible, the emotional weight of sadness and terror that the Holocaust commands did not truly sink in until my family brought me to visit the National Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Walking slowly through the exhibits, I recall vividly the feeling that I was being turned inside out, my emotional nerve endings exposed to the pain and depravity of the collective nightmare of 11 million individuals. This was a profound experience for my young mind.
The question “How could this happen? ” tattooed itself on my consciousness and never received a truly satisfying answer. This question took on a renewed resonance as I took part in a School of Social Work fieldtrip to the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Returning for another in-depth look at the Holocaust, this time as an adult with infinitely more life experience, I again found myself emotionally raw. From the moment we arrived our docent, John Hagadorn, began immersing us in the facts and contextual details of the Holocaust.
John overwhelmed us with the blunt statistics, sharing about the 6 million Jews and 5 million Czechs, Hungarians, Gypsies, LGBT and disabled persons who were systematically destroyed before the Allied forces of Great Britain, France, Russia and the United States were able to intervene. Hearing these numbers and the multitude of groups affected, I was struck by the Nazi’s tendency to aggregate, or lump together, different groups that did not meet the German’s ethnocentric, heteronormative, and physicalist perspectives (Rosenblum & Travis, 2012).
After aggregating these groups, the Nazi’s were able to dichotomize, or set themselves apart from these groups and declare them non-German and impure, their very existence in opposition to Nazi ideals (Rosenblum & Travis, 2012). Despite knowing that racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism were forces at play in the everyday German culture of the time, I find it hard to imagine that even the most relentless socialization could lead a human being to actively participate in or take a passive (but complicit) part in the extermination of millions of people based upon arbitrary differences.
I know that fairness requires that I acknowledge istorical and cultural relativism when examining the Holocaust. However, as a person benefiting from an upbringing rich in openness and respect for the innate worth of all living beings, it is difficult for me to understand how so many Germans could let such atrocities culminate in the destruction of 11 million lives, and even help to perpetuate those atrocities. After being emotionally primed by the facts about the massive populations affected by the Nazi’s racist, ethnocentric, sexist, heteronormative, and physicalist campaign of hatred, I was profoundly affected by the photographs of the personal lives destroyed.
From the moment we began the tour in the “Liberation” section, photograph after photograph of decimated humans greeted me with a palpable sense of sadness. Seeing the glassy eyed, hollow cheeked portraits of Jewish men, women and children reduced to emaciated skeletons gave me an entirely new perspective on human suffering. I imagine the slow, methodical torture of feeling my body wither away, day after day, and the madness of feeling powerless to feed my family or myself.
Our docent, John Hagadorn, reminded us that even the most oppressive cultures often recognize children as especially vulnerable and spare them some of the abuses that adults endure. This was not the case in Nazi Germany and the photographs of children wounded and disfigured by “medical experiments” involving chemical burns, skin grafts, and “exploratory surgeries” made my stomach curdle. The replication of the experimental chamber the Nazis employed to test high altitude oxygen deprivation on concentration camp prisoners was especially gruesome.
Imagining the terror and agony of the victims who endured this torture gave me a deeper understanding of the depth of dehumanization the Nazis felt for Jews. The photograph that stood out the most for me included no terrorized faces or emaciated bodies, but was simply a huge crate filled with wedding rings. With tens of thousands of rings piled atop one another, I could imagine all the families destroyed by this evil. I imagined the love that united untold couples, the dreams of children, homes, and experiences shared that were shattered.
I thought of the stories created through a lifetime of shared love and humanity, destroyed before ever being written. As I imagined my parent’s wedding bands in that crate, I felt an overwhelming emptiness. I realized that mine and my sisters lives and all the moments of joy and love we have shared as a family would have been snuffed out before ever having the chance to flourish, all based on some arbitrary distinction of race, ethnicity or religious affiliation. Today’s Issues
Sadly, the systematic genocide of the Holocaust is not an isolated incident in human history. Since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland in 1945, intolerant despots have carried out numerous other genocidal campaigns in Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, today one of the largest genocidal and humanitarian crises of the 21st century continues to unfold in the Sudan, with over two million civilians murdered and four million displaced (“United states holocaust,” 2012).
According to the Virginia Holocaust Museum, since taking power of the Sudanese government in 1989, Omar al-Bashir has recruited Arab tribal militias, or Janjaweed, to eliminate the ethnic Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa tribal groups (2012). These Nuba mountain ethnic groups and any civilians who represent a perceived threat to Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) continue to be targets of aerial bombing, mass starvation and displacement, torture, rape, and enslavement (“United states holocaust,” 2012).
Just as the Nazis used the ethnic variance of Jews, Czechs, Hungarians and other “Non Aryan” populations as the basis for violence and oppression, the NCP based their current violence in South Sudan upon perceived ethnic differences. While the Nazis dichotomized anyone who did not fit their definition of the German race, the NCP continues to dichotomize the Nuba, Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa populations because of their ethnic differences.
By employing this process of dichotomization, both the Nazis and the NCP are able to marginalize entire populations and construct them as “others” who are distinctly different and “in opposition to the dominant group” (Rosenblum & Travis, 2012). This extreme process of othering plants the seeds of intolerance and hatred that later manifest as systematic violence, as the current rape, displacement and murder of millions in South Sudan illustrates.
NASW Code of Ethics Social Justice The NASW Code of ethics defines the principle of Social Justice as “challeng[ing] social injustice” and “pursu[ing] social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people” (NASW Delegate Assembly, 2008). When considering the Holocaust there are abundant opportunities to apply the principle of social justice. As a social worker, I would have had an ethical responsibility to take action to relieve the suffering of the Holocaust victims.
The Nazis systematically oppressed the Jewish, Czech, Hungarian, disabled, and LGBT populations in horrific ways. Had I been a social worker at the time, I would have made it my priority to encourage social change by educating anyone I could about the violence and oppression that decimated these vulnerable populations. By spreading knowledge and encouraging others to raise their awareness of the suffering in Nazi Germany, I could have organized rallies and campaigns designed to apply pressure to our government to intervene earlier.
I could have encouraged sensitivity to these diverse cultures by constructing a dialogue about diversity and challenging apathetic civilians to challenge themselves to empathize with these oppressed groups and imagine themselves as victims. Dignity and Worth of the Person The NASW Code of Ethics describes the principle of Dignity and Worth of the Person as “respect[ing] the inherent dignity and worth of the person” and “treat[ing] each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity” (NASW Delegate Assembly, 2008).
The very foundation of the Holocaust and the genocide of 11 million individuals was a lack of respect for cultural and ethnic diversity. The Nazi regime targeted anyone who did not meet its narrow perception of the “pure” German race. The Nazis considered any physical or mental divergence from the Nazi racial, ethnic, heteronormative, and physicalist norms a threat. Had I been a social worker at the time, it would have been my obligation to resist these oppressive views and aid marginalized people in any way that I could.
By encouraging others to recognize the innate value of all human beings and the arbitrary nature of racial and ethnic distinctions, I could have assisted others in achieving a more empathetic awareness that could serve as motivation to take action to end Nazi oppression. Conclusion The Holocaust remains one of the darkest, most disturbing scars upon modern human history. Examining the mechanisms of intolerance that fueled the decimation of over 11 million lives allows me insight into the subversive nature of evil.
These mechanisms of socialization, dichotomization, and the various ways in which human beings construct differences in others must be understood if such evil is to be prevented in the future. Unfortunately, as in the case of the Sudan and other marginalized regions of the world, these mechanisms are still fueling the widespread oppression of entire populations. By raising my awareness of historical and modern oppression and endeavoring to embody the NASW ethical principles like social justice and the dignity and worth of the person, I can better position myself to be an active change agent and a better human being.
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