The elevator door opened, and all I could see in front of me was death.
Emaciated bodies in piles.
Eyes wide open.
And I felt nothing but shock.
That’s what I remember anyway.
But memories can be faulty.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had not been on my list of places to visit on that trip. I’d started at National Archives after saying goodbye to my husband for the day. We were in town for him to attend a conference and I’d decided I might as well go with him to do the tourist thing. The hotel room would cost the same regardless of whether I was with him or not, same with the gas for the car. We’d visited the natural history museum the day before, as well as the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre. We’d visited the National Archives several years previously and shortly after my permanent move to the United States, but I’d learned a lot more about American history since then and wanted to return.
After looking in awe at copies of the Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta, I found myself walking all the way to Union Station. I browsed the stores there and, after deciding I didn’t want to walk all the way back to our hotel by the White House, I went downstairs to the metro. It was a straight shot to the Metro Center station, but these were the days before I owned a smartphone, and I wasn’t carrying a map either. My eyes lit upon the name Smithsonian on the metro map and decided I needed to go there. Instead of exiting the system at Metro Center I changed lines, headed south one stop, exited there, and got completely turned around.
That’s how I came upon the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and had one of the most profound experiences of my life.
Memories can be faulty; it’s why so many criminal trials need hard facts to support or disprove a case. My visit took place over a decade ago. I needed maps of both Washington D.C. and its metro system to write the above paragraphs. I’m not even going to try to fully describe my afternoon because I know I could never do it full justice.
But I do remember the following things:
- Taking an elevator to the top floor. The door slides open, and you’re greeted with an enormous black and white photograph on the wall opposite. It fills your entire field of vision. It’s designed to hit you emotionally, and it succeeds.
- Learning about Chancellor Hindenburg’s role in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and hearing about a ship called St Louis.
- Walking through a hall of photographs of those who perished.
- Standing in a railroad box car, where the only light was from the entrance and exit.
- Seeing piles of suitcases, glasses, and human hair.
If the oral histories of those who survived aren’t enough evidence of suffering, there is plenty of visual evidence supplying the cold, hard facts.
Like many museums in the District of Columbia, it costs nothing financially to visit and learn. When I visit a free museum, I try to show my support by either putting a couple of dollars in a collection box or buying something at the museum store. On this visit, I did both. In the store, I picked up a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Budapest during World War II before disappearing mysteriously when the city was overtaken by the Soviets. With Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest was written by Per Anger, a friend of Wallenberg, and published by the museum. I’d never heard of Wallenberg before my visit. Now, I can’t forget him.
I walked out of the museum into bright, late afternoon sunlight. I walked back to the hotel in silence, trying to digest what I’d seen. I didn’t have anything else to do that afternoon, and it was just as well. It wouldn’t have felt right to do something frivolous. When people tell me they’re planning a visit to D.C., I recommend setting aside several hours to visit this important museum. I also suggest that they don’t have anything else scheduled immediately after. Time is needed to decompress.
What is a holocaust?
We tell ourselves we will never forget, and that we will never allow it to happen again. But what is a holocaust? Why do we talk about The Holocaust? My Latin is non-existent, but “holocaust” basically translates as “burnt whole.” Given the constant use of crematoria in Nazi concentration camps, the term seems appropriate. I’ve heard the term used in reference to other massacres but, horrendous as those events are, few come close to The Holocaust when millions of ordinary people were systematically rounded up and murdered. The victims weren’t only Jews (over six million of them were killed). Among the exterminated were prisoners of war, communists, socialists, Roma, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Anyone who didn’t support Hitler and the Nazi Party, or who didn’t fit the Aryan definition, were targets. We observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27th January because it’s on this day in 1945 that the remaining prisoners of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp were liberated.