2020 Spiegel Scholarship Recipient: Neily Raymond of Hermon, Maine
Exhibits behind glass are safe. The gun in its cabinet cannot shoot me. The bear that gnarls and looms over the museum guest is long dead, its anger sculpted by a taxidermist. The array of barbed insects beneath their clear ceiling can’t lunge at me with deadly intent. No, they are carefully packaged for the casual observer. I can stroll by, blandly, apathetic if I choose, thinking about what I’ll have for lunch. These displays are polite, appropriate, palatable. They don’t ask anything of the viewer except a moment’s attention.
And so, as I entered the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I did not duck in anticipation of an emotional wrecking ball. I skirted along the side of our procession, a mixed group of young adults who giggled and balked like kid goats. My sock kept slipping down inside my shoe, and my attention was divided between heading off the impending blister and projecting the appropriate solemnity. In my hand was a coarse beige booklet, which I opened as we crammed into the elevator. This card, I read, tells the story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. From the opposite page, an oval-faced young woman smiled at the photographer.
Ruth Warter; Berlin, Germany.
Writing this makes me uncomfortable, because I am ashamed of my naïveté—my innocent assurance that I’d already acknowledged the past with appropriate grace. In Social Studies class, the Holocaust was a subject that would circle repeatedly back like a beaten dog, and we memorized the beast from head to tail-tip. I read Anne Frank’s diary. A novel about the “Rabbits”, women who were part of the group subjected to Nazi medical experiments—their name connoted a distinctive limp from identically infected legs. Nonfiction and historical fiction and biography, from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to All the Light We Cannot See. And oh, how ludicrous it sounds, but I was proud. Proud of my empathy, proud of the superficial sadness that would string through me as I read of death camps, putrefaction and squalor and the persistent family-torn-apart motif. I understood the Holocaust, I thought, and could put it away on a shelf, where it belonged. Yes, people died, how awful, but humankind had outstripped its baseness, and we were cozied in an enlightened modern age that would never allow such apathy toward suffering.
The exhibit was sequential, so we began in 1933 and ranged through the floors, walking the timeline like a tightrope. Was I moving faster, or was the sick momentum of the events infecting me? Some displays still turn like worms behind my eyes. A staircase of childrens’ artworks, ten-legged dogs and crayon houses, each with the label Killed in Auschwitz. The residents of Ejszyszki photographed in The Tower of Faces—babies bundled for the weather, starched family portraits, sisters sprawled on a hillside—buoyantly unaware of the massacre that would obliterate their community.