New Mexico Holocaust Museum’s Executive Director Leon Natker stands in front of the Flossenbürg flag, part of the museum’s collection. The flag was painted by the prisoners of the Nazi’s Flossenbürg, Germany concentration camp and given to a New Mexican solider that helped liberate the camp.
Where does hate and intolerance come from? On the streets, on social media and in national campaigns, it infuses the conversation about the direction of our civilization. Its antonym, “empathy,” is a focal point of the Biden presidential campaign, oddly making a basic human emotion part of a partisan debate. Strange days, indeed. The New Mexico Holocaust Museum in Downtown Albuquerque is set to reopen this week after the governor lifted a pandemic-related closure. Weekly Alibi took that as an opportunity to sit down with the museum’s Executive Director Leon Natker to talk about the history of hate, its many manifestations and how we can be kinder to each other. The following is an edited version of that conversation.Weekly Alibi: This may take a while to unpack, but why are people so cruel to each other?Leon Natker: It depends on who you ask. The psychologist types or sociologists say that it’s part of our lizard brain. We have to defend our territory. We insulate ourselves and make everybody else the “other” so that we’re more important. That might be part of it. I would also say as an anthropologist, as societies get more complex—I wouldn’t say more advanced, I would say more complex—and develop cities and develop agriculture, and you have the need to protect your territory so that you can feed your people, we become more aggressive and defensive. I think that from that instinct we can become more cruel. It happens in the brain. You’ve got 6,000 years of recorded history, and we see it over and over and over again. Now, you don’t see the exact same types of really racially and ethnically motivated hatred that we do in the European context elsewhere in the world. It’s not the same. You seldom see an ethnic cleansing as you go eastward in Asia or down into Africa. It seems to be a thing that generates from the ancient Near East and up into Western Europe.Have we become kinder to each other over time?There again, that’s an interesting anthropological question. When you go to tribal societies to this day, where they’re small societies, they’re very much more, if you will, socialistic. I don’t mean that in a political sense; they take care of each other. They care about each other. As the society gets larger and becomes more complex, that’s when you begin to see more of these aberrations happen, that’s when people become territorial and become protective and start making war. War is the beginning of this. And the way to get warriors, and to engage your young men, is you teach them to hate.Is an understanding of historical events enough to generate within us the empathy we need to change our interactions both individually and collectively?I think it depends on when people are engaged and how they are engaged in that conversation. One of the things we found in our education programs is the younger we get to the kids, and the more we work on building empathy–it starts with little things like bullying when they’re kids. Making fun of the fat kid. Making fun of the really skinny kid. The short kid or whatnot. If you allow that to happen and say nothing and just go, “Oh it’s just kids,” it can build up over time. Then it gets worse and worse and worse. By the time they’re a teenager, you could have a full-on hate cell going. Children are very susceptible. Now of the adults that have come through that process: Just showing them this happened, I don’t think it’s enough. I think you have to take the education part of it a step further. I think you have to have an interpretation, a personal interpretation. Just looking at the horror pictures of the Holocaust, all that’s going to do is to make an emotional reaction. It’s going to be like going to a horror movie. There have been numerous studies that have found that that’s unfortunately been the case. We’ve been so busy showing the pictures and saying, “No, you can’t let this happen again,” we haven’t addressed the underlying causes and how people interpret it. Don’t just show them the pictures. You’ve got to give them a chance to interpret it.Where does the courage to stand up to bullies or worse come from?That goes back to my point about education. That is from within us. It’s the Elie Wiesel quote: “The only person that benefits from you saying nothing is the person perpetrating the crime.” That is something we have to teach children. A lot of people that will say the best way to deal with a bully is to punch him in the nose. I mean that metaphorically. You stand up to a bully, nine times out of 10, they back down because they are cowards. It’s like the vandalism that happened here at the museum; that person didn’t stand up and say, “Look at what I’m doing to you. They ran by, smashed where they wanted to and ran off.Do you want to talk about the incident with the windows?It was right during the time when John Lewis was being buried on television. In the front, there’s the murals there and there’s the one on the left-hand side of the Civil Rights March in the ’60s. There’s a picture there of a black minister holding the black Baptist minister sign. That’s where they smashed it. It’s not a coincidence. They have all kinds of choices there. They could have thrown a rock at Anne Frank. They could have thrown a rock at Cesar Chavez. They chose the black minister. And then, of course, ran off. The problem in New Mexico is the laws. We’re working now with the NAACP and the Jewish Federation to start crafting new legislation for hate crimes in New Mexico. The police, all they said was, "Anybody hurt?" No. "Was any blood shed?" No. "Well, file it online and we’ll see what we can do." They have no legal tools to do anything about it. All the guy could be charged with was vandalism. There are no teeth in those laws right now.Tell me about the museum’s plans related to the Southwest Native American’s physical, cultural and environmental genocide. First, what we’re doing here is a thumbnail history. I mean, it’s so complex. I think it’s very important that people understand what was perpetrated here in the state of New Mexico. The Spanish, I mean, you can’t describe what happened in the 17th and 18th centuries as anything but slavery and genocide. Then once the Americans took over, it was no better. There’s no other way to describe it other than a genocide or attempted genocide. One of the things about all of these genocides is they seldom succeed in their entirety. There’s not a lot of record of an entire ethnic group ethnically cleansed. That’s why we are going to have a sign up here [points to the wall by entrance]: “Resistance is Not Futile.” I mean, come on, the Jews, we’ve been chased around the world for the better part of 3000 years. Many times people have attempted to exterminate us. They haven’t succeeded.How can we become kinder?I think we have to learn more about people. When I was starting to study anthropology and starting to work with the Native groups here in New Mexico–I know they’re very skittish about working with anthropologists and archeologists and for good reason. A hundred years ago, the techniques were bad. I asked a governor of one of the tribes here, “Why are you willing to do this?” He said, what we need to develop is respect for each other, not tolerance, but respect. The way to develop respect is, the more we know about each other, the more we can appreciate each other’s culture, the more respect we have. We have to be willing to learn about each other. We have to be willing to accept that not everybody sees the world in the same way we do. What’s the museum experience going to be like?It’s to educate them in history, and it’s a difficult history, but I want them to come away seeing that resistance is not futile. There are positives to it. Being an Upstander is a choice. You’re making a choice. You aren’t just born that way. You have to choose that. If you do that, this does not have to be the way human history continues on and on and on, ad infinitum. I mean, maybe it will, but we can do better. We definitely could do better. The 20th century brought us the most industrialized version of mass murder ever with the Nazis. We can’t let that happen again. Now, we have had attempted genocides and ethnic cleansing since, but we have to keep fighting it. It’s part of the conflict within us. It ain’t easy being human.
New Mexico Holocaust Museum and Gellert Center for EducationOpen 11am to 3:30pm Tuesday through Sunday616 Central Avenue SWFree