The 2021 Roger E. Joseph Prize Lecture: Sara J. Bloomfield, Director, US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Roger E. Joseph Prize Lecture
Sara J. Bloomfield
Director, US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The 2021 Roger E. Joseph Prize was presented to Sara J. Bloomfield, Director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in recognition of her achievement in fulfilling the highest ethical and humanitarian values of our tradition. This Prize was established 43 years ago by Burton Joseph and Betty Greenberg, of blessed memory, to honor the memory of their brother, Roger, a man of exceptional courage and passionate devotion to principle and justice. 

Thank you to the Joseph Family and President Rehfield for recognizing the Museum and me with the prestigious Roger E. Joseph Prize, which I see was launched in 1978, the very year the idea of the Museum was first contemplated. Roger Joseph led a remarkable and distinguished life and was an exemplar of Jewish and American values. It’s an honor to receive this deeply meaningful award.

I want to start by acknowledging the person who first shared with me the news about this award, my friend Jeanie Rosensaft. I’ve known Jeanie and her husband Menachem for almost 35 years, going back to the early years when the Museum was just an idea. When I joined the project to create a memorial museum to the Holocaust on the National Mall, you will not be surprised to learn what I discovered: Jews arguing! And no wonder. We are a determined people with powerful convictions and a momentous history. These were important issues worth arguing about.

There were many arguments but above all stood this one: should a federal museum on federal land present the Holocaust in its Jewish specificity or its universal implications. Some critics said it should only be a private Jewish museum in New York. Others believed a federal museum should be a genocide museum. Still others asked why build a so-called “house of horrors” about a European event on America’s sacred National Mall, its civic landscape.

With the perspective of time, I now realize that the emotions were so strong and the stakes so high, we did not understand that these arguments reflected our strength not our weakness and spoke to our opportunities not our problems.

The institution that opened 28 years ago next week demonstrated that Jewish specificity and universal implications were not mutually exclusive. The Museum also demonstrated that the lessons of the Holocaust had much to say about our nation and modern societies in general. And above all, much to say about human nature. These debates were the beginning of our ongoing aspiration to ensure the relevance of the Holocaust for new generations. As we think about this issue today, it sits within an entirely different context: the gradual loss of the eyewitness generation; the decline in history education; the rise of social media; the constant assaults on truth; and the increase in antisemitism, racism and forms of ethno-nationalism in the US and the very lands where the Holocaust happened.

Our world today often feels grim. And it’s one that Jeanie and Menachem’s parents and the other survivors who built the Museum could not have fully anticipated. But it turns out the survivors gave us the abilities to grapple with these challenges. How did they do that?

First, by affirming the power and importance of being both particular and universal. For the survivors, the events of the Holocaust were specific to a time and place, and to their families and communities who were destroyed. But they knew its meaning transcended that time and place, and they wanted its lessons to be timeless. Second, the survivors stood as the living example of the myth of progress, that technological progress is not moral progress, that the unthinkable is always possible. And finally, they recognized that Holocaust education is uniquely suited to advancing something that was sorely missing in Weimar Germany—independent, critical thinking.

On the day the Museum opened, Elie Wiesel made this very point when he said, the Museum is not an answer. It’s a question. And the challenging times we live in call for us as a society to start asking a new set of questions about how history — Holocaust history and indeed all kinds of history— can help us do that.

It is the provocative nature of good history, not simplistic headlines or tweets, that not only tells us where we’ve been but reminds us that the past is more than a series of people, places and events. To understand history is to understand the complex dynamics among several factors — the broader context, deep roots, powerful ideas, specific circumstances, and above all, human beings. The world is always changing; human beings, not so much.

That’s why the Museum is focused on not only what happened during the Holocaust but also how and why. What made it possible?

Weimar Germany was an advanced, educated country with a democratic constitution, free speech and a longstanding rule of law. Germans had more Nobel prizes than any other country. It would be reassuring to think that Nazism was a sudden aberration. But it was not a meteorite that fell from the sky. It had deep roots in German and European history. Let’s pause to think about what it means to say deep roots.

Conspiracy theories are very much in the news, but history reminds us they’re centuries old. For Jews, they began when antisemitism was religiously based, but always morphed and adapted as society changed. After the Christian accusation of the blood libel, more secular versions would later emerge — the Rothschilds in the 19th Century, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 20th, and recent theories connected to 9/11, covid, or forest fires. Conspiracy theories may be worse in times of great change and uncertainty, but they always serve the same purpose. To give human beings something we all crave, simple answers to complex questions and ways to justify our actions. People see them reflecting what they perceive to be fundamental truths if not actual facts. Joseph Goebbels, one of several Nazis with a PhD or other advanced degree, acknowledged as much when he described the Protocols as “the inner but not…factual truth.”

There are debates about who said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Some attribute it to Mark Twain. The point is not who said it, but when it was said which was long before anyone could imagine the internet. The insight is about human nature as much as it is about mass communications.

And one person who understood both was Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf, “At the bottom of their hearts the great masses of the people are more likely to be poisoned than to be consciously and deliberately bad….In the primitive simplicity of their minds they are more easily victimized by a large [lie] than by a small lie since they sometimes tell petty lies themselves…” So it should come as no surprise that Hitler started out in the Nazi party as its head of propaganda and would later write, “Propaganda is a terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.” Today, the internet makes us all experts.

Understanding how the Nazis’ deployed propaganda is just one example of why studying history is important. History shows us how human beings in another time and place faced problems and how they responded. It shows us why they made those decisions and the consequences of those decisions. History should challenge us to ask ourselves about our own motivations and choices.

As Elie Wiesel said, the Museum is a question. The first question we all ask is: Why the Holocaust happened? To even begin to answer that question, we need to start well before the Nazis and examine some of those historical roots. Through an understanding of history, perhaps we can better see what deep roots have shaped our world today and what roots we are planting that will shape our grandchildren’s future.

In the late 19th Century, Europe was undergoing enormous economic, political and social changes. New technologies led to rapid industrialization, urbanization and globalization which resulted in vast increases in poverty, disease and crime and new questions about how to organize societies. All this dislocation resulted in: a perception of winners and losers; widespread insecurity, fear and resentment; and desperate searches for easy answers. In Germany, a toxic brew of 19th Century ideas and 20th Century events would create a perfect storm. Ideas like antisemitism were hardly new to Europe having been around for almost 2,000 years. What was new was a form of antisemitism legitimized by the latest so-called science.

The pseudo-science of the eugenics movement, which began in Great Britain, was used to justify racism and racist antisemitism. These ideas included beliefs that humans could be divided into distinct biological groups called “races” and that they could be ranked in a hierarchy from higher to lower. Incidentally, this so-called “scientific racism,” which was supported by some of the most prominent scientists and intellectuals, gave legitimacy not only to antisemitism in Europe but also to racism in the Jim Crow South.

Proponents of eugenics promoted higher birth rates for whites of so-called “good stock,” while limiting the reproduction of so-called “less desirable” individuals. In the US and Europe, eugenicists recommended the forced sterilization of “the unfit”— those with mental illnesses or disabilities deemed inherited.

So it should be no surprise that the Nazis’ first victims of systematic murder were not the Jews, but disabled Germans who did not live up to the Nazi ideal of racial purity. This emergence of racial antisemitism was complemented by growing ethno-nationalism which called for the establishment of ethnically homogeneous nations to which Jews could not belong.

One influential ethno-nationalist was the German journalist Wilhelm Marr. He argued that Jews and Germans were separate biological “races” locked in an eternal struggle with each other for survival and that “mixing of the races” was harmful to Germans. He advocated for the forcible removal of all Jews from the country—even those who had converted to Christianity. He did so 18 years before Hitler was even born.

As an aside, it is worth noting another way these ideas were influential in the US. Many of us may descend from the Jews who came to the US in the late 19th or early 20th Century. Those massive waves of immigration combined with the impact of World War I and the Russian Revolution made the US isolationist, xenophobic and antisemitic.

In 1924, Congress reacted by severely restricting immigration especially from Eastern and Southern Europe—a way of saying no more Jews or Catholics wanted. As this law was being passed in the US, Hitler was emerging as a political actor in Germany. Just 15 years later our nation’s severe immigration quotas and isolationism would end up helping to trap Europe’s Jews and aiding Hitler’s cause.

What exactly was that cause? In 1920’s Germany, the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution had an even bigger impact. Added to this, widespread disillusionment with democracy and the Great Depression created fertile ground for the ideas that shaped Hitler’s cause: ethno-nationalism, racism and antisemitism. Some scholars shorthand it and say “race and space.” Weimar Germany experienced a chaotic period of clashing extremes of the far left and far right – communism vs. Nazism, creating backlash after backlash, as the center hollowed out. Nazi leaders instinctively understood what brain science now confirms—that we are emotional creatures, often receptive to simplistic solutions to address our fears. The Nazis provoked fear to explain the causes of Germany’s problems. But they also offered hope and a new future—a racially pure future that would bring pride, unity, stability and national renewal. They skillfully created an inverted universe, redefining morality. Protection of the German people became a moral act. The notion of universal human dignity was considered a weakness, a reflection of so-called “Old Testament” Jewish values.

Carl Schmitt, a respected political theorist and Nazi supporter, condemned the idea of universal human rights saying “not every being with a human face is human.” It might be comforting to think that all Germans were like Schmitt, fervent Nazis. But by the time Hitler assumed power, 55% of Germans had never voted for him. Consider this: The 1920 Nazi party platform had 25 points. Only four were explicitly antisemitic. Others included goals such as: outlawing child labor, old age welfare, land reform and education for gifted children. This election poster promises work, freedom and bread.

Clearly, some Germans were rabid antisemites, but hardly all. Many ordinary people and elites thought Hitler’s antisemitism was too radical and violent, yet they also thought that he offered an answer to years of multiple crises. That answer rested on the promotion of ethnic revival, creation of the racial state, and removal of what they considered an existential threat to their “biological community,” namely the Jews.

Most Germans were indifferent to the intensifying persecution of their Jewish co-workers, neighbors, even friends. Indifference is what all perpetrators count on. Without the indifference of most and the collaboration of many, the Holocaust would not have been possible. It’s sobering to realize that the Nazis were in power for eight long years before they began the genocide of the Jews. Eight long years when Germans and Europeans knew about the escalating persecution of Jews and others inside the ever-expanding Third Reich. As did the Americans, who kept their doors tight, and the British, who limited immigration to Palestine.

What does all this mean for our times? First, that after many centuries of various forms of antisemitism, it’s not an eradicable disease. Nor are racism and other forms of hate.

So can we tackle the problem of indifference? Is that too ineradicable? We are all susceptible; we are all adept at rationalizing our actions and inactions.

We too live in an era of unprecedented change. The 20th Century began with war, revolution, the growth of mass communications, and then a global economic crisis. Our century began with a war waged initially by Al Qaeda, a severe recession, and an ongoing technological revolution that is so fast and profound, it is far exceeding our capacities to understand its societal and moral dimensions.

That’s why a historical perspective is important. Holocaust history reminds us of the vulnerabilities of human societies in times of rapid change. And we are facing an ever accelerating rate of change. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted our society would effectively experience 20,000 years of technological progress in the 21st Century. Remember, the Nazis were skilled in deploying the latest technologies.

How will we face unprecedented questions, often with moral consequences, when social trust is so low? Think about the important questions we are facing about free speech and hate speech. As Tom Friedman says, everybody lives in cyberspace but no one’s in charge.

And just imagine the questions we will confront about what it means to be human in light of developments in bioengineering and AI. Remember, the Nazis invoked so-called “racial science” as advanced ideas that would redefine humanity and morality.

What can help us navigate the perilous road ahead? We will need historical perspective, critical thinking, responsible civic engagement, and moral anchors. We will need constructive ways to have difficult conversations. That’s why Holocaust history is uniquely suited to this moment.

But first, we need a relentless fidelity to historical truth. Which means the politicization of the Holocaust has to end. It must stop being exploited by antisemites on both the far left and far right and misused by those trying to advance other agendas. And it must stop being weaponized as a way to attack Israel.

Second, the Holocaust seems incomprehensible which is precisely why we must endeavor to comprehend it. We once assumed education, scientific progress and democracy would protect us, but the Holocaust revealed enduring truths about human capabilities. Not only about simple categories such as good and evil, but perhaps even more importantly about all of us humans who normally don’t inhabit either end of that spectrum and may occupy different places on the spectrum depending on the circumstances. Holocaust history demonstrates our susceptibility to fear, resentment and indifference. And Holocaust scholarship now reveals that powerful motives such as greed, peer approval, and career advancement can make us complicit in the face of antisemitism, racism, even genocide.

History helps us look back, but life is lived forward. The citizens of the Weimar Republic did not realize they were standing on the abyss. The study of history helps us grasp just how susceptible they were. The Weimar Republic struggled to withstand multiple crises and rapid change. There was no strong foundation of democratic norms and practices. Germany’s deep roots lay elsewhere. Social trust was lacking. Jews, a longstanding and effective scapegoat throughout European history, became one yet again.

I will conclude by returning to Elie Wiesel’s imperative to ceaseless questioning. When do ends not justify the means?

What makes people susceptible to antisemitism, racism, or indifference? How can I avoid simple answers to complex problems?

How can I not only listen, but hear, especially those who look, pray and think differently?

Since January 6th, I’ve been contemplating the man with the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt in the Capitol. My immediate reaction was driven by the emotional side of my brain, of course. Fierce anger and condemnation. With time, I also started to ask myself some questions: Who was he? What was his life journey that brought him to exhibit such hatred? What were his deep roots?

How might they have been different?

Holocaust history helps us look back and see where warning signs were missed; where unintended consequences were not anticipated; where wishful thinking prevailed. This looking back is what we owe the victims. To remember their lives. To remember the horror of their deaths. And to remember that the world abandoned them. We cannot fail them again by forgetting what happened and why. We cannot fail them again by ignoring rising antisemitism and racism, and the increasing distortion and politicization of the Holocaust.

When we look back, it must be to see who was lost. It must be to see what failed to happen. And it must be to see ourselves. And in that seeing, it must be to think and act differently.

Thank you again for this wonderful honor.