Pictures at an exhibition on the next Holocaust

This second Holocaust, with many more victims than the first, would be over in few days.

Holocaust tattoos 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Holocaust tattoos 370
(photo credit: reuters)
When he was the deputy secretary of state and I was the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I escorted Strobe Talbott through the museum. We paused at a letter that John J. McCloy wrote on August 14, 1944, to the head of the Rescue Department of the World Jewish Congress. In that letter, McCloy responded to a request that “certain installations and railroad centers” at Auschwitz be bombed. The installations included the gas chambers in which as many as 10,000 Jews were being killed every day.
The railroad centers were the tracks that were bringing Jews to the gas chambers.
McCloy rejected the request. He said that “such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would not warrant the use of our resources. There has been considerable opinion to the effect that such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive actions by the Germans.”
McCloy’s letter was mounted next to photos of Auschwitz taken from American planes flying over the death camp to bomb military targets a few miles away; some 2,800 flew over or near the camp.
The systematic murder of the Jews at Auschwitz was already known by the US government. Asked what they would have felt had American bombers bombed the gas chambers or railroad lines, Auschwitz survivors said that they would have been overjoyed, even if the bombs had missed their targets, or even if the Germans would have repaired the tracks. At least, they said, they would have known that the Allies had tried to do something to stop, or at least interrupt, the German killing machine; at least they would have felt that they hadn’t been forgotten, or that the world cared.
As one of them said of Allied bombs they heard exploding nearby: “We were no longer afraid of death; at any rate not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life.”
I doubt McCloy expected his letter would end up as a picture in an exhibit on the destruction of Europe’s Jews.
As we paused at McCloy’s letter, I turned to Talbott, who was, no doubt, signing routine diplomatic letters every day. “Remember, Strobe,” I said, “any letter you write may end up on a museum wall.” Talbott nodded. I imagined I heard a gulp, though that was probably wishful thinking.
And now I can’t get out of my mind the image of future museums devoted to the deaths of many times more millions of people than the number killed in World War II’s Holocaust – Jews, Arabs and Iranians – in the war that could well follow the agreement just signed between world powers and an Iran racing to build atomic weapons but pressed to negotiate by crippling economic sanctions.
As a result of the interim agreement – struck by an exultant Iran and the members of the UN Security Council and Germany – Iran will obtain sanctions relief that will be impossible to reverse. And it will keep the massive nuclear infrastructure it has built during the past five years.
The interim agreement is for six months, after which many more such interim agreements are likely to be demanded by the Iranian government even as it continues to enrich uranium. In the end, what the world’s diplomats gained from this first agreement was, at most, a few weeks more that Iran would need for a dash to place nuclear weapons atop its waiting missiles.
I am, in general, an avid supporter of diplomacy and negotiations. But in this case, tightening sanctions, rather than loosening them, would have been more likely to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Should Iran’s nuclear-tipped missiles be in place, the Middle East would be, overnight, a different place. Saudi Arabia would buy its own weapons and missiles from Pakistan. Other Arab countries might, too. And Israel’s planes and missiles, both on land and at sea, and armed with nuclear weapons, would be on hair-trigger alert.
If a war breaks out, millions of Jews might again be killed.
But so, too, as “collateral damage,” might millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – and millions of Arabs in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states should they get their own nuclear weapons.
And, in a counterattack, many more millions of Iranians would be killed by Israelis determined that, unlike in the first Holocaust, the one in Europe, Jews wouldn’t go to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.”
To be sure, Iranian leaders have gloated that the end of Israel would be worth the price of any counterattack: Iran would be wounded, but Israel would be utterly destroyed.
This second Holocaust, with many more victims than the first, would be over in few days. Museums would be built around the world to document, memorialize and, their creators will believe, teach the lessons of the tragedy.
And what would the exhibits show? Photos of the devastation would be there for sure. But they would be accompanied not by a single letter by a government bureaucrat but many statements promising that Iran would never be allowed to get nuclear weapons, and that this could be achieved through a step-by-step series of negotiations – together with the names and photos of those who made those statements, including President Obama, the US secretary of state and other world leaders.
There would also be e-mails by officials and negotiators, as well as the transcript of a conference call made to American Jewish groups by aides to President Obama shortly after the Geneva deal was struck. They assured the anxious and doubting Jews that lifting some economic sanctions would lead to a peaceful diplomatic solution – even as they knew that, under the planned agreement, the Iranian centrifuges would continue to spin, Iran’s plutonium facility wouldn’t be dismantled, and Iran could break out and produce a nuclear arsenal very quickly.
All of these communications would be by people genuinely convinced that theirs was the way to peace, and driven by an eagerness to reach a deal.
And there would be statements by Iranian leaders – not only the old statements that Israel is a cancer that must be wiped off the face of the Earth but also be the statement by the only Iranian leader who actually counts – Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – who said, during the negotiations going on in Geneva, that “Israel is the sinister, unclean, rabid dog of the region.”
And if such museums are ever built, world leaders would solemnly proclaim, during the opening ceremonies, “Never again!” Until they’re brought by the museum directors to the statements, letters, e-mails and other communications by the leaders and negotiators, as well as the photos of their authors, and recognize, one hopes, that there will never be a never again unless they never again accept offers by adversaries who negotiate and promise peace but deploy their diplomacy as a means to ready themselves for war.The author is the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at The George Washington University, a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.