Standing in line outside the U.S. Holocaust Museum in the nation's capital last September, I called a friend in Omaha.
I needed the simplest of facts to finish a column — the time of a coming event. What eventually struck me as we spoke was the irony of our friendly chat.
Standing next to the National Mall on a beautiful morning, with the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol in view and not far from the White House, I exchanged pleasantries on my cellphone with an Omahan who had experienced the cruelest of unpleasantries.
Retired businessman Sam Fried — prisoner identification A-5053 still stenciled on his arm from the Auschwitz concentration camp — answered my mundane question.
We spoke for a few minutes, and I told him where I was. With my wife and son, I then entered a stunning museum that asks questions not mundane but profound. Among them: How can humans confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote dignity?
Today, as declared by the United Nations, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And a new program that Sam helped start at the University of Nebraska at Omaha will observe it with a free event open to the public: a photo exhibit and a 7 p.m. lecture on the Nazi SS and Auschwitz.
DePaul University professor Paul Jaskot will speak on the first floor of the Criss Library, where people also can see the “Future, Beware” exhibit by Omaha photographer Ophir Palmon.
“The Holocaust and death camps are not unique to Jewish people,” said Ophir, who grew up in Israel but has lived in Omaha since 1987. “We know that 6 million Jews died, but with them were another 5 million people.”
Genocides, he added, have occurred before and since the Holocaust.
I met Ophir (pronounced O-feer) at this month's opening reception for the exhibit, which extends through Feb. 22. He shot his collection of photos on a trip by teenagers, including his daughter, to Poland and Israel.
They visited the remains of death camps and saw excruciating evidence — thousands of prisoners' shoes piled up and scratch marks on the walls of a gas chamber, where 700 to 800 people had been herded to die.
The teenagers saw the cleared grounds of the former death camp at Treblinka, Poland.
“The peaceful atmosphere does not cloud the aura of this clearing in the forest,” the photographer wrote beneath a Treblinka photo. “Even absent the physical evidence, this place is clearly one of hell's compartments.”
Ophir, 50, whose work can be seen at www.ophirpalmon.com, is married to Roni Reiter-Palmon, a UNO psychology professor. They have two children.
It's often said that in ways large and small, from genocide to intimidation, it takes three parties.
“The triangle of perpetrator, victim and bystander is commonplace,” Ophir said. “Kids can relate to that. It's the same mechanism as bullying in schools. You have a bully, a weakling and one or more people who stand by watching and keeping mum.”
Ophir said it was moving to speak on the exhibit's opening night with Dr. Fred Kader, an Omaha pediatric neurologist.
Now 74, he survived the Holocaust as a child. He was only 4 when his mother told him to run out the door of an Antwerp train station.
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His parents, three brothers and a sister perished at Auschwitz, but he survived at a Belgian orphanage and later was raised by a great-aunt in Montreal. He came to Omaha in 1974.
Sam Fried lost many relatives in the Holocaust, including his parents. He survived — barely, at a skeletal 80 pounds at liberation — because he knew electronics, which became his career after settling in Omaha.
Years ago he set up a holocaust educational fund, which grew to $700,000 and was donated to UNO to establish the Frances and Sam Fried Holocaust and Genocide Education Fund. It provides for courses at UNO and four other Nebraska colleges.
A donation believed to be $250,000 came from Louis and Frances Blumkin of the Nebraska Furniture Mart family. He was an American soldier and a camp liberator at the end of the war, and his donation helped create a holocaust and genocide professorship at UNO.
My visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was moving, indeed. Some exhibits — heartbreaking photos too disturbing for small children — are placed behind walls high enough that only taller people can peer down at them.
More than 30 million people have visited since the museum opened in 1993, and officials say 90 percent of visitors today are not Jewish.
Our tour reminded me of our 2005 visit to the memorial to the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, Germany. The Nazis' cynical sign on the gate remains: “Arbeit Macht Frei,” for “Work Makes You Free.”
Cynics and Holocaust deniers remain. In some cases, so do bystanders who observe evil but are unwilling or afraid to speak up.
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