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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 / 10:46 AM

The Nazis of Forest Park: Pushing Buttons at the Holocaust Museum

The Nazis of Forest Park: Pushing Buttons at the Holocaust Museum

Image courtesy of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center

 

We’ve got plenty of crime in St. Louis, according to polls scientific and otherwise, but some crimes are more galvanizing than others.

Recent news that a group of young people were “playing” something called the “knockout game,” which was basically jumping strangers and trying to beat them unconscious, sickened everyone with a conscience in these parts. The knockout game, along with testimony from a Webster University student tormented for being gay, are part of a compelling—and snazzy—new exhibit called Change Begins With Me: Confronting Hate, Discrimination, and Ethnic Conflict at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in Creve Coeur.

Some victims of the moronic teens playing the knockout game were targeted for “looking foreign” or “looking gay” to the ignorant criminals, the exhibit explains. Hate crimes are very much the business of the Holocaust Museum, which centers around a circle of galleries detailing the events that led up to, encompassed, and followed the Holocaust. The HMLC has a long history of welcoming related exhibitions that take a hard look at prejudice, hate crimes, and so on.

Change Begins With Me is, in fact, a permanent exhibition, and it appears to be a very costly one. It’s a ginormous, 65-inch touch screen that educates Museum visitors on recent and current hate crimes happening all over the globe, with specific instructions on how you might help remedy them.

For instance, the screen might display a world map. You touch the screen over St. Louis. It changes to a description of the knockout game. You touch another prompt and you get advice about talking to your family and your teachers, emailing political leaders, or visiting proactive web sites like Teaching Tolerance, No Place for Hate, One Million Bones, or local anti-hate group, Susan Balk’s HateBrakers.

 “The point is to continue the experience of the Museum,” said HMLC Curator and Director of Education Dan Reich. “It [Change Begins With Me] begins where the last exhibition in the Museum ends, the part about Holocaust survivors resettling in St. Louis and elsewhere. And it’s about empowering individuals against indifference.”

“It’s also a primer on dehumanization and the use of propaganda,” said HMLC Director Jean Cavender. “So when you recognize social injustice, you can take action. This helps you see how.”

The touchscreen can take the user through descriptions and videos on the genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, and Bosnia; the horrors of Cambodia under Pol Pot; the persecution of the Roma people (Gypsies); the tragedies of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd; the current rise of neo-Nazi politicians elected to parliament in Greece; and the white-supremacist movements simmering in our backyard.

One useful feature of the exhibit is the set of questions generated after various prompts. “Why do some groups scapegoat others during times of economic crisis?” “What allows hate and discrimination to happen in a society?” And so on. Docents and teachers will find these especially useful.

Some of this material has been presented at other times in other ways, but the huge touchscreen—and three smaller, identical touchscreens nearby—uses the modern tech that keeps kids pushing buttons and interactively involved. Ignoring the iPad generation would not be advisable.

Just around the corner in the Museum’s temporary exhibition space, Standing For Justice, 1930-1950: Documentation from the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives takes discrimination and racial propaganda right home to our city, where, during the war years, hatemongers were busy trying to stir the pot.

One arresting photo captures the “Amerikandeutcher Volksbund”—formerly known as the “Hitler Club”—marching through Forest Park behind a swastika flag in 1937. Plenty of large American cities had bunds that rallied behind the Fuehrer at the time.

After the war, racists tried to conflate Jews and Communists in the minds of the fearful. Noted anti-Semites of the day Father Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith both visited St. Louis fairly often to stir the pot of hate.

Open discrimination was in full swing. A brochure from a Frontenac subdivision states, quite simply, “Restricted Against Negroes.” An ad for a lodge along the Meramec River says “We Cater to Gentiles Only.” An anti-Jewish joke was printed on the reverse side of a dry-cleaning ad, for handing out to prospective customers.

These artifacts are really not so old, but they come from a time in the U.S. when it was considered much more acceptable to be cruel to people expressly because they were of a minority. Some of us may remember these times; many children will not. This kind of education is crucial.

The artifacts from the responses to these unjust rules, sick jibes, and race-mongering are heartening, though. In ’43 St. Louisans held a “Stop Hitler Now” rally at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. The students of Soldan High School organized to oust an athletic coach notorious for his racist invective. Locals used education, rallies, letter-writing, and even surveillance to combat the bad guys, and often, it worked.

Some might argue that revisiting these times is a wallowing in lurid racism, to no healthy end. But though the exhibition focuses on the window around WWII, we all know American racism is alive and well. We know these memories must be revisited.

So much of what the HMLC does is, in effect, for school groups that tour the museum. There’s a presumption, perhaps, that the desire to change the world is the province of the young. Many, many adult St. Louisans have never visited this small, powerful museum. Have you?

Exhibitions like these remind us that our work is never done.

Change Begins With Me: Confronting Hate, Discrimination, and Ethnic Conflict (Permanent exhibit). Standing For Justice, 1930-1950: Documentation from The St. Louis Jewish Community Archives (closing date TBD). Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, 12 Millstone Campus, 314-432-0020, hmlc.org.

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