Holocaust Museums teddy bear and train set carry the weight of genocide – Houston Chronicle

Posted By on February 16, 2021

Ursula Meyers teddy bear, Bremen, Germany, circa 1925.

Tragedy can imbue the most mundane things in the world with overwhelming significance. Thats the main thrust of Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory., the new special exhibit at the Holocaust Museum Houston featuring 60 objects donated by survivors of the Holocaust as well as other genocides.

Collected and photographed by Jim Lommasson, each object is presented on a white board with handwritten thoughts by survivors and their families describing how and why these specific items meant something in the context of a mass human atrocity.

To walk through the exhibit is to have your understanding of reality be completely turned inside out. Something as simple as a childs toy train set or a handkerchief goes from meaningless old junk into a tactile point in history on which monsters hung their evil intentions. The train wasnt just a present; it was the thing a terrified father gave to his children as they fled Gotha, Germany in 1938 with little but the clothes on their backs. Sheltered by cousins in Chicago, the little electric train delighted three generations of a family after soothing the sorrows of those who lost their homes to Nazism.

The experience is jarring. It makes you immediately wonder what you would take with you if you could save only one thing in such circumstances. Playing cards to pass the time in refugee camps? A prayer book for strength? Its an uncomfortable question that is sadly still relevant today.

When: Tue-Sat 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sun noon-5 p.m. through April 18, 2021

Where: Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline Street

Details: $15-$19; hmh.org

Stories of Survival is largely focused on the Holocaust, but it weaves in the experiences of other, more recent pogroms alongside the German Nazi narrative. Sometimes the resemblances are disturbingly identical. A childs doll with the simple phrase I was seven dominates the back wall of the exhibit and is an artifact from the massacres in Iraq and Syria following the fall of the Hussein regime. Nearby, a one-eyed teddy bear sits staring into the distance. It had survived buried as a treasure by a child who escaped Hitlers regime but thankfully lived to reclaim it.

The moral of the exhibit in these times is inescapable; genocide is an ongoing concern and not a historical fascination. Sepia photographs of German youths are hung next to glossy color pictures of Sudanese refugees or Muslims building new lives in America. The body counts may be lower than the Holocaust, but they remain functional identical on a fractal scale.

The baldness of this fact makes the exhibit daring. There is a reason the HMS is the only museum in Houston I can ever remember having to empty my pockets and go through a metal detector to visit, and why signs prohibiting the carrying of guns are displayed on boards on the sidewalk rather than discreetly on window stickers. A lot of Americans actively reject the stories of refugees, assuming them to be an invading pestilence unwelcome on our shores. That was true in the 1930s when the country barely allowed German Jews to settle here and its sadly true today.

Maybe Stories of Survival can move the needle on that hostility. By framing the Holocaust and more contemporary genocides as the same, sad story, perhaps the reverence most Americans feel for the survivors of Hitler will rub off in the now when compassion is needed yet again. Lommasson has certainly tried to make that happen with his remarkable work.

Jef Rouner is a Houston-based writer.

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Holocaust Museums teddy bear and train set carry the weight of genocide - Houston Chronicle

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