Exploring DC: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This museum is not for sissies.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

Ever since the Holocaust Museum’s dedication in Washington DC in 1993, I’ve been wanting to visit. (And incidentally, check out that website link because it’s a very informative, fascinating site.) I immediately added it to our itinerary when we decided to go to our nation’s capital two months ago. The last time I was in the area was in the late 80’s, after they had broken ground for the museum in 1985, but before they had lain the first cornerstone thereof in 1988. Things move slowly in Washington.

Admission is free to this amazing place, even though it’s not part of the Smithsonian Institution. But if you want to visit in this pandemic era, know that you should plan well ahead of time. They required free timed-entry tickets as of this writing, and they’re often booked solid for months in advance.

However, if, like me, you aren’t quite that organized, don’t despair. There’s still hope. They release a limited number of same-day tickets every day. What you have to do is go to their website at 7 a.m. and try to get tickets before they disappear.

The first morning we tried this, we were surprised at how many people had also gotten up at that ungodly hour to do the exact same thing. My husband kept trying for tickets in the morning, only to see them snapped up by someone else. By the time he had gotten the hang of the process, which only took about two minutes, all the tickets for the day were gone. But we figured out a neat little trick for the second morning.

On that morning, DH logged in again at 7 a.m., but while everyone else was fighting over the early morning ticket times, he went for some that were for mid-afternoon, and he got them! Woo hoo! On a positive note, we were able to get tickets. On a less positive note, we would only have about 3 hours to check it out before it closed for the day, and that’s a whole lot less than this place deserves. (It’s open from 10 to 5:30. Also, be warned that it’s closed on Wednesdays.)

Having acquired the elusive pass into this museum, I could tell almost instantly as we approached it that it would be worth the hassle. The first thing I saw was a quote carved in stone on the outside of the building. It is a quote that I wish I could force every holocaust denier to read.

“The things I saw beggar description… The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering… I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda” -General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, at Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, April 15, 1945.

That set the tone. As we entered and waited in a long line for the elevator, we were told that we would start at the top and spiral our way down, from floor to floor. “A downward spiral, the same path far-right nations such as Nazi Germany always take,” I thought. I have no idea if this was intentional, but it was ever present in my mind during our visit.

Before you get on the elevator, you are encouraged to take an identification card from the tall stack of such cards, separated into male and female piles. One per customer. They look like the kind of cards you had to carry with you everywhere in Nazi occupied territory. Get caught without an identification card, you could be shot on the spot.

Each of these cards contains the 4 page story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. They suggest that you read page one before entering the elevator, and then one page on each of the three floors that house the museum’s permanent exhibit. We did so. It was chilling. I’ll share with you the stories of the two people we chose in the photos below. Just sitting here rereading these stories has made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. They put a human face on each floor.

The 4th floor described the Nazi Assault, and covered the years 1933 to 1939. It explained how Hitler was able to rise to power, and how the entire country was falsely convinced that all their problems stemmed from the “racially inferior” or “enemies of the state.” Does that sound familiar? It should. Not that long ago, our government was trying to teach us to demonize immigrants and hate the press even as we were told to deny the horrifying news because it was supposed to be “fake”.

This exhibit also talks about the unscientific philosophy of Eugenics, which holds that some races are inferior to others. Where did Hitler learn that? From the Americans. Read my blog post about that here. There are many newspaper headlines on the walls, warning of the dangerous path Europe was on, and this floor also explains how so many people desperately attempted to escape, even as the world turned a blind eye.

The 3rd floor exhibit was called The Final Solution, 1940-1945. It described the slow but steady erosion of rights for the Jews. First, little things like not being allowed to have bicycles, then not being able to attend schools, and then increasingly violent persecution. Then separation into ghettos and mass murder by mobile killing squads, death camps and killing centers. It shows you what life was like in the concentration camps in grizzly detail.

Just as the Nazis did, they start you off slow. You enter a room full of photographs from floor to ceiling, showing what actual life was like for the Jews before the holocaust. Family portraits. Trips to the shore. Summer camps. Playgrounds. Holidays. Just your typical family photo album stuff.

Then you learn of the harsh policies that forced people into the ghettos, and then later forced them into the cattle cars that would transport them to one of the more than 1000 Nazi concentration camps scattered throughout occupied Europe. (Did you know there had been that many? I didn’t.) You are presented with an actual cattle car, which you have to walk through in order to see other parts of the exhibit. I knew this would be upsetting, but I don’t think I realized just how intensely the feelings would hit me.

At this point, I had gotten slightly separated from DH, and there were no other people in the immediate area, either. I walked up to the cattle car, but I didn’t want to step in. But then I told myself that no one had wanted to, and dammit, if they had to endure the horrors of the Holocaust, the least I could do was drag my over-privileged, extremely coddled behind into that car for two freakin’ seconds.

By then I was extremely foot-sore and my lower back was killing me, and I felt ashamed, because that’s not even a tiny speck of dust in comparison to the universe of terror, dread and torture that these people had to endure. Get. In. The. Damned. Boxcar.

So in I went. On one level it was just an empty boxcar. Huh. Smaller than I expected. But my imagination quickly populated it with a hundred terrified people who were crying, wailing, sweating, coughing, defecating and vomiting, desperate for water and food and space to breathe, and having no idea what was in store for them at the journey’s end.

It felt so real to me that I nearly dropped to my knees. I didn’t want to appear crazy, though, so I went into a corner and I leaned back against the wall and tried not to freak the heck out. I started weeping. This place was a box full of pain and fear, and yet I realized I was only feeling about one percent of what they had felt, because on some level I knew I could step out of that boxcar and resume my life at any second. Ultimately, that’s what I did. But I will never forget that place. Not ever.

I can tell you that this museum is not for sissies. But I felt compelled to press on, to learn, to bear witness, to prevent it from happening again. (Please, everybody, educate yourselves, and vote.)

We learned about the various concentration camps and sites of mass murder. I read about Babi Yar for the first time. It is a ravine outside of the city of Kiev where the Jews of the city were lined up and shot, over two days, to the tune of 33,000 dead. And then in the months to follow, more people were shot in that ravine, thousands more Jews, as well as Roma, partisans, and prisoners of war. In the end it was estimated that, at a bare minimum, 100,000 corpses were in that ravine. If that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you have no soul.

I was particularly drawn to any description of the Mauthausen camp in Austria, with its staircase of death, because my father helped to liberate it, and I’m fairly certain that he wasn’t sober a single day in his life after that. He died a sad and lonely alcoholic death when I was 8 days short of my 25th birthday. I never got a chance to know or even meet him. So I looked closely at all the photographs of Mauthausen, and the video of its liberation, and wondered if any one of those stunned American soldiers was my father.

I’ve held a certain theory my whole adult life. To wit: even though he wasn’t imprisoned there, my father was also a victim of that concentration camp, and by extension, so was I. The ripple effect of this ugly period in history continues to damage us all in numerous ways.

From there I came upon the shoes. Each death camp tended to accumulate massive piles of them, taken off the prisoner’s feet before they were gassed. This display was just a small portion of a pile of shoes from just one camp, and it was still dreadful to look at. My God, so many shoes. All that is left of so many people.

We then spiraled down to the 2nd Floor, which was called The Last Chapter. It was a floor that restored a little bit of hope within me. It was about the many people in the resistance. It told stories of those who risked death and imprisonment to save people. It talked about the underground, and the many Jews who fought back.

Being of Danish descent, I was particularly drawn to the story of the Jews of Denmark, the only occupied country that managed to save the vast majority of its Jews. 7,220 of them were smuggled into neutral Sweden. Unfortunately, 500 more were deported to Theresienstadt, but all but 51 of those poor souls survived.

The next part of the exhibit was a long wall that listed what the State of Israel call the Righteous Among the Nations. It’s a list of all those non-Jews who risked their lives during the holocaust to save Jews from extermination. The wall includes famous people such as Oskar Schindler (see also the movie Schindler’s List) to people who worked quietly in the shadows, such as Irene Gut Opdyke, a housekeeper for a German army major. She hid 18 Jews in her employer’s villa. These people and their stories should always be remembered. Here are but a few of them.

From there, the museum took on the topic of bystanders who did nothing at all. They didn’t collaborate, nor did they come to anyone’s aid. They simply stood by and looked elsewhere. They comprised the vast majority of the people, and it is that type of behavior we need to avoid if we don’t want these things to happen again.

One of the last things you see in the permanent exhibition is a cast of a wall that still stands to this day in Cracow, Poland. It is made of the fragments of Jewish headstones from a 400 year old cemetery that was destroyed by the Germans and turned into a mass execution site. What a sobering legacy.

After having gone on this downward spiral for hours, I was kind of shocked to enter the sad but tranquil Hall of Remembrance with its perpetual flame. On one wall is this quote from President Clinton, during the dedication ceremony for this museum.

“This museum will touch the life of everyone who enters and leave everyone forever changed – a place of deep sadness and a sanctuary of bright hope; an ally of education against ignorance, of humility against arrogance, an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lures ahead. If this museum can mobilize morality, then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality.”

Well said, Bill. But the editor in me wants to know why you said “lures”.

I wish we had had the time to see the temporary exhibits, including Burma’s Path to Genocide, which reminds us that these atrocities can and do still happen to this day, and especially the one called American Witnesses, which tells stories of the people like my father who saw the awful aftermath of the Holocaust firsthand, and the exhibit for children that shows the experience of the Holocaust through the eyes of one particular child. But time is fleeting.

After we left the ubiquitous gift shop, still feeling rather stunned, we realized that we were one of the last visitors in the building, and we watched all the employees leave as we stood in the rain, waiting for our Uber. The rain made me feel miserable, but at the same time it felt like the tears from the victims of our twisted and flawed human past. In that context, my irritation at little bit of cold water flowing down the back of my neck seemed trivial, indeed.


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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