The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is a difficult building to visit.
For four hours it was difficult.
We tried to do this Memorial years ago and went through part of the changing exhibit. By the time we were done, we were mentally and spiritually exhausted and couldn’t find the energy to use our timed tickets to walk the permanent section.
This excursion came a week after being at Pearl Harbor and seeing World War II Veterans for the 75th Commemoration events. Although many men enlisted directly after the attack at Pearl, any who made it to Europe and saw the camps knew they had multiple reasons for fighting.
When you arrive at the entrance to the permanent area, you are instructed to take an Identification Card and in the elevator, you watch a moments-long video. The ID cards contain a photograph and biographical information about an actual camp internee. Ours were Hanna Ellenbogen (she did not survive) and Karl Gorath. This is a crucial way to make visitors understand that, like the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, this place is a remembrance of persons lost for no logical reason.
In contemplating the Holocaust, there’s a recurring thought: Why did this happen? Because the Nazis felt 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?” And Elie Wiesel responds, “Each individual must answer that question for himself or herself.”
How can we ever be the same walking through the building, reading the stories, viewing the films, understanding the multitude of humanity that was lost with each murder that happened?
The museum was not a place to take photographs, but coming through the train car, an actual transport used for prisoners, pausing inside to feel the presence of those who stood there, to imagine being in this space with 100 other people…we shouldn’t forget these consuming emotions, moving on with the tour as if we never felt even a ghost of the horror.
There is a flow and gradual buildup to the displays that educates you about the “Nazi Assault” and the party’s rise to power and their plans for world domination. Although this first 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.
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 far more of the camps than you thought existed?
A quote from the online notes regarding the third and last floor strikes a chord, “The issue of individual responsibility toward fellow human beings in danger is a repeated theme…” The “Last Chapter” shows how many failed to help just as many assisted.
The exhibits are well-curated with adequate room to peruse and read and 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 both lost it. I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of the thousands of shoes, but here’s one of the quote above them.
As feeling, breathing, thinking people, it’s 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 war everyone thought, never again, but that has not been the case. You can see this in the exhibits near the end that tell of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, violence in Central Africa and other examples.
If only the hate-filled people could see the results of bigotry and racism and be touched, changed, as a result of having their eyes opened… But if they had souls, they’d never hate in the beginning.
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.