Demonstrations in front of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills have taken away from the identity of this iconic building.
When it comes to public symbols, none in the Detroit Jewish community is as significant as the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills. Located on a heavily traveled street and adjacent to restaurants and low-slung office parks, the imposing building is by design an architectural contradiction. It shockingly communicates the enormity of the unparalleled crime against Jews that, in many cases, was occurring next door to a fence, wall, gate or street where non-Jews were still going about their everyday business.
The contradictions go beyond the physical. Initially opened in 1984 adjacent to the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, the HMC was tucked into a small and mostly subterranean space surrounded by acres of greenery. Its founder, Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig, and the Shaarit Haplaytah — the survivors/remnants of the Holocaust — made the HMC a place for Zachor — remembering what was done by the Nazis and their collaborators to their own families and the Six Million. The HMC was also a place that would protect the almost unspeakable uniqueness of this War Against the Jews, as the author Lucy Dawidowicz called it — always countering those who would attempt to revise, diminish or dilute it.
In its current facility since 2004, the HMC continues as a national focal point for learning the lessons of the Holocaust. As the HMC’s website states, “knowledge of the past is essential in order to avoid its repetition.” It also states that “witnessing the horrors perpetuated by the most educated society in Europe brings the rude awakening that education, including religious education, is no barrier against hatred and violence. The education one absorbs at the HMC veers one toward constructive social consciousness.”
Collectively, the HMC is a place of nuance. It preserves and protects the uniqueness of the Holocaust, serves as a continuing memorial for survivors and their families, and teaches lessons intended to promote tolerance, reject bigotry and take righteous stances against oppression.
So, with our political climate already supercharged, rhetoric flying and Twitter accounts aflutter, it was only a matter of time before the ugly situation at our country’s border with Mexico would bring a clash of competing narratives to our community’s doorstep: one depicting helpless refugees from strife herded into concentration camps staffed by Nazi-like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents; the other depicting aliens invading our country, often with rapists and convicts in tow, who cannot enter without proper documentation and are temporarily housed in detention facilities.
And that time occurred on Aug. 20 when an estimated 200 people — separated by Farmington Hills police and their vehicles — gathered in front of the HMC. None could recollect a previous occasion when a group with a significant number of Jewish protesters were challenged by a group of mostly Jewish counter-protesters at a revered Jewish institution that both sides honor and respect but claim as justification for their positions and actions.
Close the Camps Detroit, a group that includes Holocaust survivors, Holocaust educators and communal rabbis, chose the site to dramatize their concerns about abhorrent conditions at the border with Mexico. They fear the country is descending into authoritarianism under President Donald Trump. As survivor Rene Lichtman told the Jewish News, “It is very appropriate (for us to be here) because this museum stands for what happened and could happen.” They carried signs that included: “ICE = Swastika” and “Close the Camps!”
The Jewish counter-protesters included Holocaust survivors, long-time conservative activists and Trump supporters. They were joined unexpectedly by about 15 “Proud Boys” — a decentralized group that the Anti-Defamation League defines as “a right-wing ‘fraternity’ who present themselves as defenders of conservative values and put a premium on confronting or attacking leftists.” “Proud Boys” affiliates have been associated with white supremacist activities in Charlottesville, New York and elsewhere.
Counter protest organizer Eugene Greenstein told the Jewish News, “People should not be using the Holocaust Museum as a prop for their political agenda.” Counter protest speaker Rabbi Aryeh Spero told the Jewish News “it is just terrible to use the backdrop of the Holocaust Memorial Center to somehow portray to the public that there is no difference between the real concentration camps and detention centers.” Counter protester signs included: “Anti-Semite Left (Commies) Go Home/Proud to Defend Jews,” “Stop Exploiting The Holocaust” and “Build the Wall.”
The protesters are correct to sound the alarm about the slippery slope toward right-wing authoritarianism they believe is occurring. Conditions at the detention centers are disgraceful, and the seeming lack of humanity coming from our country’s leadership is appalling.
The counter-protesters are also correct to claim that comparing the detention centers to Nazi concentration camps is knowingly inaccurate and insensitive to the survivors who endured them.
As the child of one survivor and the son-in-law of another, the HMC is a place for me to remember family members, renew strength in the face of current challenges, and derive inspiration from those who refused to stay silent. Visitors to the HMC typically depart with resolve to take some form of action — large or small — against intolerance.
While the HMC sidewalk along Orchard Lake Road is available for the espousal of collective points of view, the protesters and counter-protesters would have benefited more from a visit (or repeat visit) inside the HMC — as individuals — to wrestle with the lessons of the Holocaust, understand its unarguable truths and nuances, more fully inform their points of view … and respect the institution they were both claiming for their backdrop.