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Lessons of the Shoah: Relevant to This Century

April 23, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Sara J. Bloomfield, executive director of the U.S. Holocaust museum, will keynote the community's memorial ceremony on Sunday.
Despite having a master's degree in education, Sara J. Bloomfield isn't your typical educator.

For one thing, you won't find her in a regular classroom. Still, her particular "lecture hall" last year hosted more than a million visitors, with another 25 million stopping by online.

Bloomfield, who serves as executive director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., noted that certain high-profile books and movies over the last two decades have led to an increased popular consciousness of the Holocaust; however, such interest, to be purposeful, must be backed up with first-rate history.

That's where she and the museum come in.

"Right now," she said, "our Web site is the leading online authority, so when popular culture spurs an interest, we want to make sure there's an outlet there."

For this reason, the museum has extended its online outreach to sites like YouTube, Second Life and iTunes -- "all those places young people go to interact and learn on the Net," she said.

Bloomfield will deliver the keynote address at Philadelphia's annual Holocaust Memorial Ceremony on Sunday. This year's gathering will consider "Holocaust Memory in the 21st Century," a theme that she sees as intimately tied to her efforts in nation's capital.

The director pointed out that, in her eyes, one of the most influential things the museum does is translate its Web site into other languages -- not only French and Spanish and the like, but Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and more.

The year before it was translated into Farsi, about 5,800 Iranians visited the site in English; after the switch, that number jumped to 72,000. Similarly, Saudi Arabia's numbers soared from 5,900 to 87,000 after translation, and Bloomfield said that the increase in traffic post-translation was proportionally similar in terms of other languages.

Like all nonprofits these days, the museum's fundraising efforts have been hurt due to the economy, which has meant shaving $6 million from its $74.5 million budget by putting outreach programs on hold for a while, among other similar strategies. Bloomfield said that such changes would be manageable for a year or two, "but it's nothing we'd want to do indefinitely."

'The World Will Be a Different Place'
One of the reasons is that Holocaust survivors are dying off quickly -- an inevitability Bloomfield and her colleagues are working to prepare for.

"The world will be a different place without survivors, and to think that anything could replicate or substitute for them is absurd," she said.

Yet she did cite a high note -- the museum's "Rescuing the Evidence" initiative, which documents survivor experiences for future generations.

"When we've lost that sole authentic voice, the only authentic witness we'll have is their testimonies, artifacts, documents and photographs. So we must collect as much of that as we possibly can before it's too late," an effort she said that has become a race against time and a process of juggling funds.

The museum's permanent exhibition hasn't changed much since opening day 16 years ago, according to its director, who's been at the helm since 1999. Prior to accepting the top job, the 58-year-old native of Cleveland, who has been with the institution since 1986, served as associate director and acting director, among other positions.

The institution has hosted more than 28 million visitors overall, and elements have been added to the facility to keep it up-to-date technologically and to showcase special exhibitions.

One such example is the recently opened "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda," a special exhibit that Bloomfield said was spawned by concerns about the Internet as a place to foster anti-Semitism, hate and Holocaust denial.

The display begins in 1918, rather than 1933 when the Nazis came to power, she said, in order to show the National Socialists as a marginal extremist party that used propaganda to become a mainstream force within a democracy, one that was eventually able to sell war and genocide to the German public. To keep it timely, the exhibit ends with the legacy of Nazi propaganda in today's world, including on the Web.

"We try to keep our exhibits very rooted in Holocaust history, but point out the lessons this has to offer for 21st-century America," she said.

In addition, in the decade-and-a-half since the museum's opening, genocides have continued to occur -- in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan.

As such, another exhibit, "From Memory to Action," focuses on those mass slaughters and different ways of responding to them, including diplomatic, humanitarian and military means.

It also utilizes video to showcase individuals involved in these events who made a difference, along with touch-screen technology, e-mail and more to bring together what Bloomfield called "a constituency of conscience" -- ordinary people around the world determined to make a difference.

Though this display covers a different historical era than the Holocaust, its underlying message is the same: people are part of a larger universe, and each individual can make a difference.

This year's Holocaust Memorial Ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 26, at the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The rain site will be held at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. More info? Call 215-832-0665.

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