Holocaust on exhibit at Discovery Center

Johnstown facility hosts ‘Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race’

It probably was on a family trip to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s. I don’t clearly remember just when I visited the United States Holocaust Museum, except that it hadn’t been open for very long.

But I certainly remember being there. Vividly. If that’s the word that should be applied to such an oppressive, sobering experience.

Images returning to mind a quarter-century later include dismaying black and white photographs, sooty brickwork and a deeply pervasive darkness. But what I remember most are the shoes.

If you’ve been to the Holocaust Museum you know what I’m talking about: a long, wide trough piled with shoes — most uniformly browned with age — that had been confiscated from the people entering the Majdanek Concentration Camp; men’s business shoes, women’s dress shoes, shoes with holes in the soles and, mixed among them all, the small shoes of children.

The United States Holocaust Museum presents its experience very, very effectively. Exiting into bright sunlight onto the National Mall, I remember needing several minutes to recover my sense of place and time.

If you haven’t been to the Holocaust Museum, you need to go at some point. For this is much more than a memorial commemorating one of the most evil, murderous periods in human history; it is an important place that confronts hatred and genocide, a place that promotes human dignity.

Meanwhile, though, you can experience some of the Holocaust Museum experience in a much simpler and more-convenient way. The U.S. Holocaust Museum offers three traveling exhibits, and one of them just opened on the second floor of the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center.

Titled “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” this exhibit explores some of the factors that fed into the holocaust. For the decision to kill 17 million people didn’t happen abruptly or impulsively.

Eugenics — the concept of trying to improve the human gene pool through selective breeding — applied a positive veneer to an abhorrent concept, laying at least some of the foundation for what followed.

This pseudo-science brought together researchers, physicians, public health officials and others typically dedicated to serving the public good with Nazis who had a more malevolent agenda.

In pursuit of the cause of enabling the “Aryan” race to thrive, Nazis systematically purged those perceived to be “inferiors” — which not only included six million Jews but Gypsies, people with “hereditary illnesses,” other ethnic minorities and homosexuals.

The curators of “Deadly Medicine” point out that the exhibit’s value extends far beyond interpreting history. It offers very relevant lessons for today on some of our complex bio-medical ethnics issues, including how we acquire and use scientific knowledge and how individuals’ rights are weighed against those of the larger community.

There is nothing fluffy about this exhibit. Its curators caution that due to its subject matter, parental and viewer discretion is advised.

But thanks to impressive levels of support from a variety of foundations and Jewish-related funds, a large cross-section of our region should be able to see this exhibit without cost, if desired. Students of dozens of school districts will be bused in, and the general public will be admitted free of charge every Saturday through April 27, when the exhibit will close and move on.

Today, as the last of the holocaust survivors are passing on, there seem to be growing numbers of holocaust deniers. Which means the United States Holocaust Museum and its traveling exhibits have an increasingly important mission — one etched into a wall at the museum in Washington — that is expressed in Deuteronomy 4:9 — “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”

For more information on “Deadly Medicine,” visit JAHA.org.