In some ways, Hofshteyn’s vision has come to life: Holocaust memorials and museums are common today in Germany and across the globe. These museums aim to gather and display evidence of Nazi crimes with a focus on education, such as at the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, which opened in 2015. Such sites, however, lack some of the most remarkable features envisioned by Hofshteyn. For example, the poet invoked the widespread belief that the Nazis were making soap from Jewish corpses and turned this into a powerful image: The young German had to be lathered with soap made from the bodies of the worst Nazi perpetrators in order to wash off the stain that lay on the entire German people. Along with passing an exam about the crimes of the Holocaust, this cleansing would become a ritual performed by every young German entering adulthood before they could become a member of society or even call themselves a human being (a mentsh). Also absent from today’s Holocaust memorials is what Hofshteyn called the »peripheral work« of the museums of shame – the gallows which should stand in every German city and hang all incapable of washing away the savagery of their ancestors.
At the time of Hofshteyn’s return to Kyiv, he searched tirelessly for his mother and brother who had been left behind, only to find out that they had been murdered at the Babyn Yar ravine – along with tens of thousands of other Jews in one of the Nazis’ largest mass shootings. No museum of shame was built at the site of Hofshteyn’s most personal loss. A monument was finally erected in 1976, though it made no specific mention of the Jewish victims executed there, due to the Soviet nationalities policy, which had begun to discourage minority expression and instead sought to unify the country by portraying the entire Soviet people as equal victims, thereby tacitly erasing the uniqueness of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.
A menorah-shaped monument to the Jewish victims was installed in 1991, and before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there were plans to fully open the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center by 2023 – though those plans have certainly been hindered by the latest war of aggression on the territory of Ukraine. Covering an area of almost 1,500 square kilometers, the Memorial Center would have eventually consisted of museums, research centers, works of art, and other audio and visual exhibits, including a 3D topographical map, a »mirror field« riddled with bullet holes, and a sound sculpture that murmurs the names of the dead in an endless loop. It was this combination of traditional and modern, interactive elements that received criticism for not being somber enough for such a memorial; critics have gone so far as to deride the project as a »Holocaust Disneyland.« Advocates, on the other hand, simply describe it as a modern museum using all the technological and creative elements at its disposal to educate an audience which is more than three-quarters of a century removed from the crimes of the Holocaust. The tools may thus be very different than what Hofshteyn foresaw, but in this focus on education through sensory immediacy, it shares the aims of the museums of shame.
At a time characterized by great mourning, Hofshteyn’s call for education was remarkable. »We will use the same methods with the younger German generations that we use with cats and dogs: We will push their entire face into the horrible, disgusting filth that the German people have done during the war.« This focus on the full-bodied and multisensory experience of shame is best understood not as vindictive but as educational. In fact, it was a language of »reeducation« similar to that which came to be used in the denazification of Germany. Hofshteyn’s museums of shame were thus the very first steps in the movement away from grievance and toward indictment. Such charges were eventually built on a mound of evidence provided by the same impetus to collect and document, which forms the basis of the museums of shame. Though they would never be built just the way he imagined them, Hofshteyn foresaw and demanded the will to indictment which would eventually become vital to prosecuting the Nazis, to marking the legacy of the Holocaust, and ensuring the veracity of the words »never again.«