Friday, March 5, 2010

What's missing in the Dora exhibit at UAH?

What's missing in the Dora exhibit at UAH? -

Coming around the corner of the exhibit in the UAH library about the Nazi slave labor camps and seeing a photo of the handsome Wernher von Braun in the gallery labeled "Perpetrators" took me aback.
Our Wernher, a "perpetrator"? Was he?
Was our good Nazi, the engineer of our modern Huntsville, the patron of the arts and the visionary of space travel really so involved in all that mess as to be labeled "Perpetrator"? I mean, we all knew his factories used slave laborers, but should we hold him accountable like he was the human resource staffer?
Von Braun himself didn't think so. He described his own work during the war with the Germans as "my duty," same as what other Germans did to support their country at war.
"An engineer in times of war is a soldier," he told a radio interviewer in 1963.
The implication is that soldiers do unspeakable things out of a wartime necessity that civilians could never understand.
Well, soldiers may do that. But true heroes will stand, alone if necessary, against societal insanity, even when it is defined as "duty," to try to save even just one piece of the world, as did Oskar Schindler or Anne Frank's Miep Gies.
But when duty comes to shove, where would most of us stand?
The defining of one of our leading citizens as "perpetrator," reminded me of Horst Kruger's 1986 memoir, "A Crack in the Wall: Growing Up under Hitler."
Kruger describes being a child in a regular middle-class German household, outlining how far away from his life the cruelties of the war seemed. Sure, some shop windows got smashed one night, and some kids disappeared from school, but all that gritty annihilation of human beings seemed far removed from his orderly childhood.
I don't remember many of the details of the book, but I'll never forget that it ends with Kruger's experience as a young reporter covering one of the war crimes trial. Hurrying to get to his seat on time, he sat down, opened his notebook, and only then realized that he'd blundered into a place among the accused.
It's a moment when he realizes all the tiny ways that his own obliviousness had helped to empower the system that had ground to death so many millions of people.
Kruger was not listed as one of the accused, but he knew he was one of the guilty.
Among the awful consequences of Nazi atrocities, I'm afraid, is that the sensational nature of their cruelty makes it too easy for us to classify the sins that made those horrors possible as actions beyond any that we ourselves could do.
The sins of the slave camps, though, are worth considering. At their root, they are sins committed by far more than just our handsome hometown hero: Sins of feeling entitled, of classifying people as more or less useful, of obliviousness to the ways our daily living helps grind other people into the dirt as we use the systems that prevent fair wages and safe working conditions both here and in our supplier countries.
The sins, in short, of all the ways, both little and large, that we neglect to do for others what we expect to be done for us and our children.
I left the exhibit thinking it was incomplete.
Next to von Braun, they should hang a mirror.
Kay Campbell, Faith & Values editor, may be reached at 532-4320, Her column runs the first Friday of each month.
"Dora and the V-2: Slave labor in the space age" is free and open to visitors during the regular hours of UAH's Salmon Library through March 12.

No comments:

Post a Comment