First Person Singular

(Benjamin C. Tankersley)
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Sunday, April 6, 2008

"ISN'T IT DEPRESSING? ISN'T IT ALL GLOOM AND DOOM?" I hear that all the time. It's the first question I get at a cocktail party. Some people might imagine it's like looking into the abyss, but I think I have the most rewarding, fulfilling job in the world.

We do a lot of work with the D.C. schools. Years ago, a [Holocaust survivor] talked to the kids. One boy came over and lingered, and she put an arm around him. He looked up and said, "You know, lady, I never knew white folk had troubles, too." That speaks to our lesson here -- our common humanity.

Every year, the entire freshman class at the Naval Academy comes in. They look not only at history but also what were the failures of the German military, not living up to their ideals. One time the secretary of the Navy came to talk to them. Gosh, I thought, what'll he say about a lesson on questioning orders from your military superiors? He told them: "I'll bet you're wondering why you came here to the Holocaust Museum at the very beginning of your naval education. It's because first and foremost, your duty as an officer is moral leadership. Whether you're giving or taking an order, I want you to question whether it's morally right."

Two years ago, I saw three teenage girls from California come out of the testimony film at the end of their visit; they put their arms around each other and sobbed and hugged each other. In the main exhibit, though, kids and teenagers get quiet and subdued. Not like what you think of as teen behavior at a museum. There's a reverence for the history. It's very gratifying to see that.

On bad days, when I get upset, I watch the testimony film. It shows vignettes of how they survived, extraordinary stories of imagination, resilience, courage, loss, the human spirit. It centers me and reminds me who I work for -- the victims. It's a privilege to work in the memory of these people and create a meaningful experience that'll improve the world today.

-- Interview by Ellen Ryan

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