Friday, June 12, 2009

Violence in a Scared Space: Reflections on The Shooting at the Holocaust Museum

Today's guest post is written by Joseph Ross, and has been adapted from His bio follows.

If there are such things as sacred spaces, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of them. From the moment one enters, there sits an unusual quiet. To enter the museum’s galleries, you are given an identity card bearing the history of a person who entered one of the camps. You are ushered into an elevator, which echoes those of the camps. In various places, you walk through startlingly common things: a sea of shoes left by those killed in the camps, a train car which took Jews and others to the camps. You view actual concentration camp shirts marked with the yellow star, for Jews, the pink triangle, for gays, and various other emblems to distinguish the Nazi’s murderous categories.

My experience there is unlike that at any other museum. There often exists a kind of reverence. You touch the wood of a train car that once held so much suffering. You view actual shoes left by those going to the gas chambers. There is not the typical “tourist place” chatter. In moments like these, one is only left with silence.

Wednesday, there was a shooting in this very space. Of course, there are shootings everyday in America. People are killed daily in liquor stores, on street corners, in churches, mosques, and synagogues, even. While we rarely hear of murder in a museum, we cannot really be surprised.

A couple of years ago, I went to a lecture series at the Holocaust Museum, about the situation in Darfur. One warm summer evening during the lecture series, they showed slides on one of the outside walls of the Museum, all images from Darfur. It showed people’s faces mostly: the elderly, children, lots of smiles, some sorrows, kids playing games, all the human reality one would expect. A few of us stood on the sidewalk below and watched, transfixed. It was during this slide show, and prompted by the lectures, that I sought to give voice to some of what I learned. This resulted in a series of five poems called The Darfur Poems. Unconsciously, I found myself writing in the voice of one who washes and prepares dead bodies in a camp in Darfur. I was trying to find a way out of my own silence, in the face of suffering.

There is so much hatred in America, the world. There is so much misunderstanding and even at times, a deliberate desire not to understand others. There is also, of course, such easy and self-righteous access to guns that we can never be surprised by violence in this country. Not even violence in a place that seeks to say: “Never Again.”

Even we poets may be stunned to silence for a time. Yet we must work to give voice to the love that lives beneath our shocked silence. It is that voice which is truly sacred.

Joseph Ross is a poet whose work has appeared in many anthologies and journals including Poetic Voices Without Borders 1 and 2, Come Together-Imagine Peace, Poet Lore, Beltway Poetry Quarterly and The Potomac Journal. He co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture. He will be teaching in the College Writing Program at American University beginning in August 2009. His writing can be found at

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