The Death of Hippocrates
by Sherwin B. Nuland
Post date 09.08.04 | Issue date 09.13.04

In a court of law, a witness becomes a person who testifies. What he has seen or heard is transformed into what he describes. Intended or not, the nuances and subtleties of his narrative, the variations in pitch of his voice, the expressions on his face, and the very way he holds his body–all of these are editorial comments on his words, and even those words convey feeling. He has been affected by the experience that he describes, and no amount of restraint or force of will can prevent his listeners from perceiving its influence on his thoughts. He is a man transmitting not only an account but an opinion, too, and everyone who watches and listens while his narrative unfolds will perceive what that opinion is. Some witnesses do this deliberately, while some attempt to speak without an iota of judgment. But even with the most determined detachment, every man or woman who testifies communicates a viewpoint. That viewpoint becomes the context in which his observers reach their conclusions, for they have indeed seen and heard the evidence through his eyes and his ears, and filtered it through his mind and his mouth.

I found myself thinking about these matters a few weeks ago, shortly after my first visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I had spent two days there, viewing the extraordinary exhibition that runs until October 16, called “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.” I devoted the first day to the materials I had come to study and the second to the permanent exhibit. The conclusions I reached about my experience were the result of a process that I realized only in retrospect was fostered by the atmosphere that must surely be among the strongest of the influences that the museum has had on the nearly twenty million men, women, and schoolchildren who have visited it since its opening in 1993. By this I mean that the Holocaust Museum is not a place of testimony, it is a place of witness.

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