A walk through the Holocaust Memorial Museum
I visited Washington, D.C. for the first time this month. After finishing my business there, I had a day free and wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to spend it. I had a vague idea of wandering around the National Mall and perhaps bumping into a friend who works on Capitol Hill. But after a bit of googling, my plans crystallized: Of course, I had to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
To get in to see the Permanent Exhibit, you have to reserve a ticket, but it was a quiet weekday and this wasn’t difficult. After a leisurely morning, then afternoon coffee with a reader, I caught an Uber to go claim my slot. I noted the address: 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place. Wallenberg was one of the great heroes of the Holocaust, a Swedish Schindler who forged passports for numerous Jews to escape. In a bitterly tragic twist, he disappeared and is believed to have ended his own days in a Soviet prison after being detained on suspicion of espionage.
The museum puts its visitors through a security screening, which of course isn’t unique to them. Still, I can’t help wondering if they’ve been on higher alert than usual over the past few months, if they’ve received an uptick in threats.
After your screening, you are greeted by a young woman who hands you a small, crisp pamphlet, about the size of a passport. This is your “identification card,” telling the story of one Holocaust victim. I tuck mine away in my purse to read later. The young woman says a few more words to me and a few other visitors before the elevator carries us up, reminding us to be quiet and bear in mind that people come here to remember their families. In the elevator, there’s a small TV playing prison camp liberation footage on a loop, as the voice of an American soldier narrates what he’s seen. Many exhibits are accompanied by similar loops as you walk through.
Before you get to the Final Solution, you are taken through the rise of the Third Reich. There’s footage looping of an apoplectic Hitler, anti-Semitic posters, photos chronicling the progressively intensifying segregation. One photo shows a young man sitting on a park bench labeled “For Aryans only.” A page from a Nazi tabloid explains that because Jews are “born criminals,” they can’t smile, only twist their faces in “a devilish grin.”
On the Jewish day of atonement, 1938, this prayer was read aloud in synagogues throughout Germany, written by Berlin’s chief rabbi, Leo Baeck:
Our history is the history of the grandeur of the human soul and the dignity of human life. In this day of sorrow and pain, surrounded by infamy and shame, we will turn our eyes to the days of old. From generation to generation God redeemed our fathers, and he will redeem us in the days to come. We bow our heads before God and remain upright and erect before man. We know our way and we see the road to our goal.
I’m reminded of Viktor Frankl’s reflection that his generation had come to know “man as he really is.” For “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
Later, I read that Baeck survived his imprisonment in the Theresienstadt ghetto camp, delivering lectures from memory and acting as a pillar of strength for the other inmates. After liberation, he intervened to stop revenge killings of the guards. He accepted a transport to England only after ensuring the health and comfort of the sick.
After the Anschluss, Austrian Jews were attacked and forced to perform menial tasks, like scrubbing sidewalks. I take a picture of a small crowd defacing a home with the word “Yud” in thick, calligraphically precise letters.
Another wall educates me about the doomed Evian Conference, a half-assed initiative to organize the admission of Jewish refugees. A British newspaper cartoon about the conference shows an old man in a kippah, slumped under a four-way street sign with “Go” on every side. The four roads radiate out from him in the shape of a swastika, each ending in a sign saying “Stop.” Franklin Roosevelt organized the conference but took pains to deflect attention from the fact that America’s own quota was severely limited. One by one, the nations shrugged their shoulders. Australia explained that it “does not have a racial problem, and [is] not desirous of importing one.” The attendee from British Mandatory Palestine, one Golda Meir, was not allowed to speak or participate.