The outside of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is rather unassuming. It doesn't look any different than any other museum in this museum laden city. It's made of brick and mortar just like every other museum. By looking at the outside, no one would know that just by walking through the doors, it will change your life forever.
I had been in D.C. in 1993 when the museum was opened but there was a huge waiting list to get inside and I was nowhere near important enough. So, it wasn't until about 6 years later that I actually got to go inside. I, for some unknown reason, have always been drawn to World War II Europe in general and the Holocaust in particular. I am not Jewish. I don't know anyone who was personally touched by the mass genocide during the 1930's and 40's. But for years now, I have read the stories of the survivors, both the victims and the perpetrators. I have studied the history of how Hitler came to power and how the deporting and then killing of millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, political dissidents, and others began. I guess one thing that fascinates me is the complicity of an entire nation of people. Or maybe it is the horror and disbelief that this really happened. I don't know. Whatever the reason, getting to go into the museum had been something I had wanted to do for years.
Upon entering the building, we came into a small foyer that appeared to have no exit. We were greeted by an older woman, maybe 65, who handed us a pamphlet with a brief history of how the museum had come about and a piece of paper with a name and a life story on it. She told us that this was one of the prisoners of one of the camps. At the end of the exhibition, we would discover if "our" prisoner had lived or not. Mine was a 16 year old girl named Misha who had lived in Poland . She had two younger brothers and one younger sister. They had been taken to Auschwitz along with their mother and father. There was no picture of her on my slip of paper but I got a vision in my mind of a girl with brown hair and serious, brown eyes who dreamed of being a doctor. Being the oldest, she was often responsible for her siblings and I could see her putting a protective arm around a couple of them as they were led away from the cattle car that had brought them to this horrible place. The shouts and guns of the guards shattering the bravado she had attempted to wear.
After handing us the paperwork, the woman led us to an elevator that was hidden from view behind her desk. She told us that the exhibit started on the fifth floor and wound its way down to the first. She pushed the button for us, smiled, and then returned to her seat. We rode the elevator to the top and then exited into 1933.
The exhibit actually began after World War I describing how Germany was left in chaos after the Great War. It explained how Hitler and the Nazi Party came into power and then began their assault on humanity. I was impressed with the amount of paraphernalia the museum had acquired from this time period but was not, as yet, particularly moved. It wasn't until we got into the 1939 and later section that I began to realize this was not to be your ordinary, sterile, history-from-a-distance museum trip.
During the circular downward slope, I came across an actual cattle car that had been used to transport people to one of the concentration camps. I was, at first, hesitant to enter the car because I was getting a dark energy from it. But, it was part of the experience so I walked in. I was immediately bombarded with images, sensations, and sounds. I could see people packed into this car so tight that there was no room to move. I could see the terror and despair etched onto their faces. I could hear the moans of pain and the quiet desperate tears. I could feel the anguish of people separated from loved ones and the fear that they would never see them again. I could smell the stench of fear, dozens of sweaty bodies, blood, feces, and urine. These people had been forced to relieve themselves where they sat because there was no where else to go. I could feel the almost overwhelming sense of claustrophobia they had felt being crammed in so tight they could barely take a breath. This car, even 50+ years later, still carried this horrible time in its wooden beams.
I stumbled out of the cattle car gasping for breath so relieved to find myself in the present I almost cried. We continued downward to see a set of bunks where the prisoners had slept. They were stacked on top of each other so close, the sleepers barely had room to slide in. Sitting up was out of the question. They had been constructed this was so as to get as many people as possible into one dorm. There were pictures of emaciated men, women, and children, no more than walking skeletons, on the walls. Behind a wall about four feet high was a video screen. The wall was put up so small children could not see the video playing. So they could not see some of the worst atrocities the Nazis committed. This was video taken by the Germans of their "medical" experiments. Actual documentation of the soullessness of these men. They were proud of what they had done. They stood next to their "subjects" and smiled at the camera. I was torn between wishing that wall had been six feet tall so I couldn't have seen it and realizing that this must be viewed to be believed and believing was one step closer to seeing that it never happened again.
Next we walked past a display of shoes. Just ordinary, old, leather shoes. They were in a bin with a clear front so you could see how many there were. There were thousands and thousands of pairs of these shoes. It took just a heartbeat to realize that there had been a person inside every pair of those shoes. And these thousands and thousands of shoes represented only a small, minute portion of the people that died during this horrible time. The next display bin was filled with combs and hairbrushes, toothbrushes and mirrors, ordinary personal items. The Nazis had seen fit to keep the things they stole off the prisoners while casting the actual people aside like garbage. It was all too overwhelming but the worst was yet to come.
The next display was a section of what looked like a bathroom wall. There were shower heads at even intervals along the top. Unsuspecting women, men, and children were stripped of all their belongings as well as their clothes. They were made to stand naked outside and wait their turn at the "showers". What they didn't realize was that these were not ordinary showers. In fact there wasn't even any water hooked up to the shower heads. As another group was herded inside and the door barred shut, instead of the water they were expecting they could hear a hissing sound from above. It was the gas the Nazis pumped into the room to kill them. I could feel their desperate realization that these were not showers to get them clean but death chambers where they were to die. I could hear the screams and sobs and final gasps for air. I could smell the acrid stench of the gas and feel my lungs suddenly seize at the toxic fumes. I could feel their terror as their lungs began filling with fluid and they began drowning in their own blood. The gas worked fairly quickly as far as the Germans were concerned but for the thousands who experienced it first hand, it took an eternity to die.
I was so grateful to enter the next downward spiral. We were led onto a walkway with walls that went up higher than we could see and went down into the next level. On every surface of those walls were pictures. Thousands of pictures. Birthday pictures, wedding pictures, family portraits, and candid shots of people living life. Women on horseback, children playing in the dirt, men working in the fields. There were old faces and young faces. Beautiful faces and weathered faces. These pictures represented a village of over 900 people. It was actually a joy to step from all that death into all this life. I was enjoying looking at all those pictures as the walkway spiraled down into the next level. It was there that a plaque told us that all these people, all these souls from this one village, had been exterminated by the Nazi mobile killing units. An entire village that had stood in that spot for hundreds of years, wiped out in just two days. Over 900 people had been systematically taken to the village outskirts, forced to dig their own mass graves, then been shot, covered with lye and buried in giant plots of unmarked earth. All those people in all those photographs were dead. I was beyond overwhelmed. Tears that had been hiding in the corner of my eyes now poured freely down my face. It was all I could do not to sob so loudly they would hear me on the upper levels. Even now, years later, I can't help but sit at my computer screen and cry. I had always known how horrible the holocaust had been but I had known it from distant pictures and academic texts. I had never witnessed it up close and personal like this before.
I still had one more horror coming when I stumbled out of the wall of pictures and into an area with several walls about five feet high. On the wall directly facing me was a list of names. I realized these were the names of the people on the slips of paper we had been given what seemed like days ago. I scanned the list for my girl's name and when I found it, I could no longer contain my sobs. I cried out loud, to hell with anybody hearing me. This young girl, who's only worry before the Nazis came was keeping up with her little brother, had died a horrible brutal death, for what? Because of some insane megalomaniac and a country full of people willing to turn their backs. Make that a world of people willing to turn their backs. Other countries had known what was going on and had done nothing to stop it. Some even profited from it.
My vision obscured by tears, I managed to make it into the last part of the exhibit. It was a small temple, round with altars of candles at each of the four cross points. There was daylight coming from a skylight in the center of the roof illuminating the middle of the circle while the edges remained in candlelit darkness. Along the walls of an inner circle were benches made of stone. The room was void of other people and I made my way to one of the benches because standing was something that was getting steadily more difficulty to do. I sat and cried for what seemed like hours, the image of that lost sixteen year old girl still in my mind's eye. What a waste, what a senseless act of carnage the whole thing had been. How anyone could have been complicit in this immense tragedy was, and still is, beyond me.
After I was completely cried out, I arose off that bench and went to one of the altars of candles. In the flickering light, I picked up one of the long matches, lit it off an already burning candle, and then set aflame the candle next to it. As I watched the wick catch fire, I thought of Misha and her family. I thought of all the families that had been touched by this awful atrocity. I thought of all the potential that had been lost, snuffed out way before its time. Never again, I thought. Never again should something like this be allowed to happen. Never again.
I gathered myself and walked out of the temple into the bathroom. I washed my red, tear-streaked face and then washed my hands because I felt dirty. This trip down the spiral of hell that was the holocaust left me feeling as if I might never again be clean. Some things, once seen and heard, can never be unseen and unheard. I was not the same person I had been when I had strolled into that small foyer just a few hours ago. This experience had forever changed me. I no longer believed that all people were essentially good. I no longer believed that given the choice, most people would choose to do the right thing. I no longer had as much faith in humanity as I did before I came in here.
I exited the bathroom and walked through the small gift shop into the cold overcast day. The sun was hidden behind dark, rain-filled clouds and I thought that very appropriate. I walked down the sidewalk past a newsstand where I stopped to read the headline. There, written in big black letters, was proof that "Never again" didn't really mean never again. In some other remote part of the world, people were killing other people by the thousands. One people were trying to eradicate another people. When would it ever stop? When would we learn that underneath all that makes us different, we are all the same?
I pulled my collar up against the cold and strode off down the street back into my world where people are essential good and nobody kills anybody else. Off I went to stick my head back into the sand because, after all, what could one person do?