The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is a difficult building to visit.
For four hours it was difficult.
We tried to tour this Memorial before. That attempt had us only managing to see part of the changing exhibit on the ground floor. As determined as we were when we began, we couldn’t find the energy to explore the permanent section. By the time we finished, we were mentally and spiritually exhausted. We knew we would return, better prepared to do the Museum justice by going through the three floors of the permanent exhibit.
The Memorial is a self-guided, chronologically laid out, exploration of how the Holocaust evolved out of the Nazi party’s determination to achieve power.
Here is a hugely simplified definition of manipulative behavior. Think the deviousness of Sleeping With the Enemy on a massive scale. A victim’s (not the word I prefer) acceptance of and adaptation to someone’s distorted world views comes as they are subtly, repeatedly, bombarded with the abuser’s paradigm. Compliance also comes because good people have a hard time understanding evil intentions and bad behavior. When being a good and generous person is made to imply you are weak and inferior, abusive people exert their power.
By the time someone realizes how wrong the situation has become, wicked people are in control, commanding deference and acquiescence. The Jewish people were systematically led to believe, do this and you will be okay. (Go into the ghettos) Now, do this and you will be okay. (Vacate your homes.) (Get on the trains.) (Do this work.) (Step into the showers.)
Feeling buoyed after being at Pearl Harbor for the 75th Commemoration events, we planned another visit to the Holocaust Memorial. Many of the World War II Veterans we met and talked with were in Europe and saw the camps and participated in the liberation of the prisoners. Their endurance strengthened us.
Preparing to experience the Museum*
Exploring the website prior to arriving will assist with planning your visit. This is one of the most robust museum sites you’ll find. Reviewing the information will help prepare you for the breadth of material you will see.
In contemplating the Holocaust, the recurring thought is, why? Why did this happen? The simplest answer is because the Nazis believed the Jews were inferior. But why they thought this, who knows?
The museum guide states, “This museum is not an answer. It is a question. And the question always is: What is your responsibility now that you’ve seen, now that you know?”
Elie Wiesel responds, “Each individual must answer that question for himself or herself.”
Every few years, I read Wiesel’s book, Night, and contemplate. Could I have survived as he—and others—did? Would my faith have faltered or seen me through?
Your experience begins.
You step into an elevator to rise to the fourth floor, where the historical timeline starts in 1933 and takes you through 1939.
My mind immediately asked, is the elevator small to simulate the horrid crowdedness the Jewish people endured, corralled, pressed together, in cattle cars?
The Museum personalizes your visit
In the elevator, you watch a moments-long video and are instructed to take an Identification Card. The cover of the ID booklet reads, “For the dead and the living must bear witness.” Each booklet contains a photograph and biographical information about a camp internee. Ours were Hanna Ellenbogen (she did not survive) and Karl Gorath (he survived).
Carrying the ID card, reading it, following the instructions to turn pages as you change floors, is impactful. Making an attendee think of an individual is a crucial way to understand that, like the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, this is a place for remembrance of persons lost. Choosing to be here is about individuals, not the vague, hard to conceive vastness of, Six Million.
Starting here, you feel the flow and gradual buildup to the displays that educate you about the “Nazi Assault,” the party’s rise to power, and their plans for world domination. Although this floor immediately pounds you with photographs of the camps taken by US Army Soldiers, it then steps back to show you how these death camps came to be.
How can we exit the building as the same people we were upon entering? Reading the stories, viewing the films, comprehending the multitude of humanity that was lost with each murder that happened, alters something inside us.
On the third floor, you learn about the construction of the ghettos and the onslaught of mass murders as an unspeakable part of warfare.
The museum was not a place we felt comfortable taking photographs. Having many shots of Arlington Cemetery to prompt memories, I’m not sure where our hesitancy came from.
The path directs you through a train car … an actual transport used for prisoners. Pausing in the darkness provokes more thoughts of people crammed close in a tight area. It was striking to stand inside the car and imagine being confined in the space with 100 other people. It was difficult to shake the consuming emotions, the shadows of ghosts, and move on with the tour. I took a picture so that I would always be able to evoke that visceral response. When I think that life is hard or difficult or trying … I look at that photo and count the blessings of my day.
The Last Chapter
The second floor seeks to explain the Nazi’s “Final Solution” to the problem of the Jews and others they deemed undesirable. The focus is on the concentration camps. Will you be astounded by the map showing more camps than you thought existed? We were.
A quote from the online notes regarding this floor strikes a chord, “The issue of individual responsibility toward fellow human beings in danger is a repeated theme…”
The exhibits are well-curated with adequate room to peruse and read. They are interspersed with short films not to be bypassed. Concrete walls stand tall before certain videos in order to shield children from accidentally seeing them. This is wise, but note that it also blocks the viewing by adults in wheelchairs.
We were mostly okay until the shoes, which are nearly at the end, and then we broke down. I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of the several thousand shoes, but here’s one of the quote above them.
This interview with Norman Salsitz tells his story of survival and rebuilding his life. This is striking, “Because why did I survive? To have a continuation! I have a daughter, she has three grandsons. So, it means that Hitler didn’t win the war. With me he didn’t win the war. Because his – to win the war it means to destroy every single Jew. And with me, he couldn’t do it.”
As feeling, breathing, thinking people, it is important to be confronted with places like the Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Flight 93 National Memorial, The Arizona Memorial, and too many more. At the end of the World War II everyone thought, never again, but that has not been the case. You can see this in the exhibits that tell of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, violence in Central Africa, and further examples.
If only hate-filled people could see the results of bigotry and racism and be touched, transformed, as a result of having their eyes opened…. But if haters cultivated inclusion, goodness, and diversity, they would never be moved to hate.
In closing, please take the time to watch the video, “Why We Remember the Holocaust,” and ask yourself that question.
When you go:
Going*: Allow at least half a day. Hours are 10:00 – 5:20
Location: National Mall near the corner of 14th St SW and Independence
Tickets: The Permanent Exhibition requires tickets from March 1 through August 31. These are timed tickets due to the number of visitors.
Website: If getting to Washington, DC is problematic for you, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum website is extensive. The research materials, photographs, and videos are there for everyone to view. The message is clear: educate and never forget.
(*See site for complete details on visiting.)
In closing, watch the video, “Why We Remember the Holocaust,” and ask yourself the question.