As a New Holocaust Exhibit Opens in Burlington, the War in Ukraine Looms Large | History | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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As a New Holocaust Exhibit Opens in Burlington, the War in Ukraine Looms Large


Published March 25, 2022 at 2:24 p.m.
Updated April 19, 2022 at 2:01 p.m.

Panels from "The Courage to Remember: The Holocaust 1933–1945" - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Panels from "The Courage to Remember: The Holocaust 1933–1945"
As more than 70 Vermonters gathered in Burlington Thursday evening for the opening reception of a new traveling exhibit that examines the causes and consequences of the Holocaust, the exhibit's message felt less like a history lesson on the defining genocide of the 20th century than a call to action to stop the next one of the 21st century.

“The idea of ‘Never again’ is the password that we all have learned," said former Vermont governor Madeleine May Kunin, in her March 24 keynote address at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington. "As we watch the situation unfolding in Ukraine, bombs falling as we speak, we realize that ‘never again’ [is] difficult and has been breached so many times.”

"The Courage to Remember: The Holocaust 1933–1945" is a 40-panel exhibit that traces the history of the Nazi genocide. Using text, historical photos, illustrations and maps, the exhibit serves as a timeline running from the origins of German anti-Semitism in the words of Martin Luther in 1543 — "We do not know to this day which devil has brought them [Jews] a plague, a pestilence, pure misfortune in our country" — through the Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s, to the creation of industrial death camps in Europe, to the camps' liberation in 1945.

The traveling exhibit, created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County,  has already been seen by more than 10 million people in 40 countries. On display in Burlington through May 1, the exhibit will be accompanied by other free programs at the library during its six-week run, including film screenings, book discussions and author talks.

All three current or former government officials who spoke at the exhibit opening — Kunin, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D–Chittenden) — have Jewish roots in Europe. But all three spent more time talking about the present than the past.

Calling the Holocaust, "inexplicable," Kunin, a Jew born in Switzerland in 1933, drew stark parallels between what happened in Nazi Germany eight decades ago and what the Russians are doing in Ukraine today.
Former Vermont governor Madeleine May Kunin. - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Former Vermont governor Madeleine May Kunin.
 “'Death by design' is what happened in the Holocaust," Kunin said, referring to the title of one of the 40 panels, "and death by design is what is happening right now.”

But even as "never again" has long served as a rallying cry against ethnic cleansing and mass extermination, all three politicians emphasized how often that message is ignored. Weinberger, a descendant of European Jews who immigrated to the United States to escape anti-Semitism, pointed out that there have been seven major genocides on four continents since the Holocaust occurred.

Weinberger then quoted from a paper written by his former graduate school housemate Samantha Power, who went on to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017 under then-president Barack Obama.

"Genocide has occurred so often and is so uncontested in the last 50 years," Power wrote, "that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted ‘never again,’ is, in fact ‘again and again.’”

Ram Hinsdale, herself a Jewish woman of color who has ancestors from Ukraine, emphasized the importance of courage, both in remembering history and in acting upon its lessons. She pointed out one such courageous act by Kunin during her time as the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 1999. During her ambassadorship, Kunin pressed the Swiss banks to return to Holocaust victims and their families money that had been stolen from Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

“We can look back now and say, ‘Of course!’" Ram Hinsdale said. "But every act like that requires incredible courage. That’s a lot of discomfort to put people in.”

For her part, Kunin noted that many of the images emerging from eastern Europe today — of children, mothers and the elderly fleeing bombed-out buildings and crowding into train stations — are eerily reminiscent of World War II. But Kunin also highlighted some of the important differences between what happened in the Holocaust and what's happening in Europe today.

In the 1930s, she said, the world was largely unaware of the Nazi death camps. Even when stories about gas chambers and incinerated bodies began trickling out, the reality seemed far too gruesome and horrible for most people to believe. And while the Nazis were highly successful at keeping their atrocities secret, Kunin said, the same cannot be said about what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

"The Russian people might not know everything, but they will eventually," she said. "It won’t stay locked up forever. We the public know what’s going on."

And therein lies the importance of "The Courage to Remember" exhibit, Kunin said. It reminds us, as free people, of our ongoing obligation to teach history, learn its lessons and then act upon them while we still can.

“Information is powerful," Kunin said. "Information about what is happening is the tool with which we can, hopefully ... say 'never again' once more. It’s never too late to take action. It’s never too late to help.”

For a complete schedule of events related to "The Courage to Remember" exhibit, click here.

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