SD County Fair previews a Holocaust exhibit - Brian W. Jones

SD County Fair previews a Holocaust exhibit

DEL MAR, California — Will a large number of the San Diego County Fair’s expected 1.5 million visitors this year want to take a break from carnival games, cotton candy, and this year’s bacon...

specialties to see a 42-poster exhibit detailing the Holocaust from its origins to its conclusion?

Leaders of both the Fair and the Foundation for California, which has taken the exhibit on tour around the world, see mutual benefit in what, at first, may seem a startling juxtaposition of the frivolity of a county fair and the somberness of a Holocaust exhibit.

Alfred Balitzer, chairman of the Foundation for California, said the first-ever county fair venue for the exhibit caused some people in his organization a bit of “angst,” but, based on the gratifying experience the exhibit had at a shopping center in Modesto, California,  it was decided  that the Fair may help the exhibit reach far more people than such traditional venues as museums and schools.

Many thousands of people in Modesto took a break from shopping and dining to see the exhibit,  said Balitzer, who is also a history professor at the Claremont Colleges.   For them–and the people visiting the San Diego County Fair–there is no Museum of Tolerance (which produced the exhibit)  nor other Holocaust museum that is easily accessible.   Unless they make it a point to research Holocaust history on their own, residents of towns and cities around the world lacking such a museum might otherwise never absorb the lessons of the Holocaust.  San Diego has neither a Holocaust Museum nor a Jewish Museum.

Offering people the opportunity to view “The Courage to Remember” exhibit will burnish the Fair’s credentials as a place for education as well as for entertainment, according to Frederick Schenk, a board vice president of the San Diego County Fair, who is himself the son of a Holocaust survivor.

An hour-long ceremony, at which many veterans from World War II were seated as honored guests,  introduced the exhibit to members of San Diego’s media on Friday afternoon, May 31.  The event preceded the San Diego County Fair’s annual “media party” at which representatives of news organizations are treated to free samples of the various foods and beverages on sale on the Fair’s midway and try their luck at some carnival games.

Numerous elected officials along with Elane Geller, a Holocaust Survivor from Los Angeles who was given a standing ovation both before and after her short speech, told how they related to the Holocaust, foreshadowing perhaps some of the many ways that visitors will react to the exhibit.  Following their speeches, the elected officials participated in a ribbon-cutting to symbolically open the exhibit. Geller described herself as one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, saying she had been taken prisoner at age 4 1/2 and was liberated at age 8 1/2 from the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp  in northwestern Germany.  She said when her mother was murdered in front of her, she was still too little to understand what had happened. Today, Geller speaks at schools and at various Yom Hashoah events, her constant message being “we must all partake in justice and kindness.”   However, she said, she often sees “abject indifference” to racism, anti-Semitism and to other forms of bigotry and hatred.  Today, she said, the average age of Holocaust Survivors is 83, and the Survivors are dying around the world at the rate of 100 per day.  “As long as I live I will be on the journey of fighting injustice,” she declared.

Congresswoman Susan Davis, a Democrat, told of visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, Germany, and also visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem where she said her heart was broken by the children’s exhibit. In that multi-media, walk-through exhibit, the multi-mirrored reflections of a candle represent the 1.5 million children who were slain in the Holocaust.  When she was a member of the State Assembly, Davis said, she chaired Holocaust Remembrance ceremonies inside the chamber of that legislative body, bringing such Holocaust Survivors then living in San Diego as Gussie and Mike Zaks and Rose and Max Schindler to address her fellow legislators.  Mike Zaks has since died,  Gussie has become frail, while the Schindlers continue to recount their Holocaust experiences to school children and at various public events.  “It’s our solemn duty to carry on their work,” Congresswoman Davis said.

State Senator Marty Block, who like Davis is a Democrat and a member of the Jewish community, told of growing up in Skokie, Illinois, and wondering why post-World War II immigrants from Europe never seemed to want to talk about their past.   That changed, however, after a group of neo-Nazis announced their plans to march through the heart of Skokie in what Block said was simply an effort to torment the Survivors.  In opposition to these plans, residents of Skokie mobilized, and although the courts said the neo-Nazis had a constitutional right to march, ultimately the neo-Nazi demonstration was cancelled.  Importantly, said Block, “the Survivors decided that silence was not an option.”   In recollection of those days, Block said,  a museum was opened in Skokie, bringing former President Bill Clinton in person as a speaker and President Barack Obama by telephone hook up.  Outside those ceremonies, Block added, marched a dozen neo-Nazis, driving home the lesson: “bigotry and hate never go away.”

State Senator Joel Anderson, a Republican, said one of his proudest legislative accomplishments was persuading the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) to divest billions of dollars from companies that do business with Iran, “a country that denies the Holocaust” and which threatens Israel.

State Senator Mark Wyland, a Republican, appealed to attendees for support for a bill he has authored to require school children to be taught about the Holocaust as well as other genocides, including that against Armenians during World War I, and modern slaughters in places like Darfur, Sudan.

Assemblyman Brian Jones, who chairs the Assembly Republican Caucus, said his grandfather had flown a B-24 during World War II, was a Prisoner of War for 18 months and weighed 98 pounds when he was liberated.  “The calamity of war weighs heavily even three generations later,” he said.   He said Holocaust remembrance ceremonies–such as was alluded to by Congresswoman Davis–still occur each year in the California State Assembly.  “Freedom is not a gift of heaven,” he commented. “You have to fight for it every day.  Thank you and Shalom.”

San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts said that as “the first openly gay supervisor” he had a special appreciation for the “Courage to Remember” exhibit.   In addition to Jews, homosexuals were among the peoples wantonly murdered by the Nazis.   Roberts said he hoped that  during the exhibit’s run from June 8 to July 4 at the San Diego County Fair, it will be inundated with visitors.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts (no relation to Dave) said the exhibit is a reminder of man’s “capacity for evil” and added that he hoped visitors would study the exhibit to better appreciate the issues of human rights, civil liberties and upholding the dignity of all human beings.  In so doing, he said, they will help assure that crimes like the Holocaust won’t happen again.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said that as he viewed the exhibit he thought about the fact that he is a “grandson of a Russian Jew” and realized  ”that could have been me.”   For many years prior to joining the Sheriff’s office, Gore had worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, rising to special-agent-in-charge in the San Diego office.  As part of their training in Quantico, Virginia, FBI graduates are put on a bus and taken to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to tour that impressive exhibition.  Whether people go to such a museum, or attend an exhibit such as this, Gore said,  another Holocaust cannot happen.

Financial backing for the exhibit was provided by the French Railway system, SNF, which after the conquest of France and the railroad’s take over by the Nazis,  provided the transportation that took many Holocaust victims to their deaths.   In an act of sorrow for its role, and determination that a Holocaust never happen again, SNF provides the funds for the exhibit to be taken all over the world.  Balitzer said “The Courage to Remember” has drawn crowds in Europe, Africa and Asia.