The line outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum stretched halfway down the block Wednesday, raindrops freckling the sidewalk, as Barbara Conroy and her teenage granddaughter, Molly Giguiere, inched toward the doors. They were in town for only a few days, but at this particular moment, it topped the list of sites they had to see.
“If you think about the context now, in our modern time, it is especially important,” said Giguiere, from Northern California. “I mean, you have Steve Bannon . . .” she said, referring to President Trump’s top adviser, formerly publisher of a nationalist website popular with white supremacists.
“ — and Sean Spicer,” Conroy, of Atlanta, interjected with a frown. A day earlier, Trump’s press secretary had sparked an uproar with clumsy, offhand references to Nazi concentration camps.
“It was disgusting,” Giguiere said. She glanced toward the museum’s vast, light-filled atrium. “I’m glad I’m here.”
These are strange times for the Holocaust Museum. A new breed of authoritarian politics is on the rise around the world, mingled with an anti-immigrant sentiment that has sparked fears of fascism. In the United States, there has been a reported rise in hate crimes against Muslims and a wave of anti-Semitic threats and graffiti. These things have all combined to provoke a new surge of interest in the dark chapter of history the 24-year-old museum explores.
Now, though, the museum is trying to maintain a delicate balance, between its clear activist mission — the remembrance of the 6 million European Jews killed by Hitler’s Nazi regime, and the prevention of genocide in the future — and studiously nonpartisan stance.
The institution hasn’t remained silent. But it has been particularly deliberate about when, and how, it speaks up. (The museum declined to comment for this article.)
The museum didn’t hesitate to sharply condemn Richard Spencer, a vocal Trump supporter who organized a gathering of white nationalists in Washington in November. Spencer “said that America belongs to white people,” the museum noted in a statement. “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”
But when it comes to some recent off-key words from the Trump administration, the museum has taken a more cautious and indirect approach.
After Trump issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to acknowledge Jews specifically, the White House defended the phrasing, arguing that Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Museum didn’t take on Trump or his words directly — but it issued a pointed clarification of the terms involved.
“The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Nazi ideology cast the world as a racial struggle, and the singular focus on the total destruction of every Jewish person was at its racist core,” the statement said. “The Holocaust teaches us profound truths about human societies and our capacity for evil. An accurate understanding of this history is critical if we are to learn its lessons and honor its victims.”
Other Holocaust-focused organizations have been less restrained. When Trump publicly condemned anti-Semitism in February — the first time he had done so since taking office — the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect decried the gesture as too little, too late.
“Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration,” the center wrote on its Facebook page at the time.
As Spicer’s remarks Tuesday began to spread across social media, Holocaust Museum staffers braced themselves, according to an employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (Spicer, in denouncing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said that “someone as despicable as Hitler . . . didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” overlooking the Nazi gas chambers used to kill millions. Then, trying to explain that gaffe, he referred to the death camps as the “Holocaust center.”)
“There’s a deep breath, and a ‘here we go again,’ ” the staff member said. Several employees took to their own social-media feeds to vent barely veiled frustration. Holocaust Museum historian Rebecca Erbelding shared archival news articles documenting Hitler’s use of the chemical poison Zyklon B to murder Jews.
“It’s amazing how relevant my work feels lately,” she added dryly.
On its official Twitter and Facebook pages, the museum posted a searing video of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. While the museum itself did not mention or respond to the press secretary specifically, plenty of others did.
“Has Spicer seen this?” one Facebook user asked in comments posted below the video. Another remarked: “And in 2017 Sean Spicer denies Hitler ever used poison gas on civilians. God help us all.”
For some who haven’t visited the museum recently, current events have given them a new sense of urgency.
“After Spicer’s gaffe, I searched for a picture of gassed Jews. I was appalled to find ‘Holocaust is a hoax’ among the top Google results,” said Kathleen Delano, the head of a Virginia-based consulting firm.
She promptly vowed to take her 19-year-old son to the Holocaust Museum as soon as possible.
On Wednesday morning, a young couple from Wisconsin waited to enter the museum’s ticketed main exhibit. Ryan and Lindsay Jonas were visiting Washington for the first time and had made this stop a priority. Just before they arrived, they’d watched the latest news about Spicer’s comments on television in the museum cafe.
That sort of misinformation “is a real threat,” Ryan Jonas said. “It’s important to come here. . . . If we don’t understand the history, we can’t stop it from happening again.”