Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series.
According to Wikipedia, "The Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust is an annual 8-day period designated by the United States Congress for civic commemorations and special educational programs that help citizens remember and draw lessons from the Holocaust." This usually takes place in April or May, depending on the Jewish calendar.
Thus, it seems a fitting time to recollect my visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Going to the Holocaust Museum isn’t like going to the Museum of Natural History or the National Air and Space Museum. I didn’t go there to have fun or to be entertained. I went there, truthfully, out of curiosity. I thought I already knew a lot about the Holocaust, and I wanted to see what the Holocaust Museum could tell me that I didn’t already know.
The interior of the museum is not like a regular museum. It is stark, gray and poorly lit; it was so dark I could hardly read some of the picture captions and text. It purposely has a “factory” feel to emphasize how dehumanizing and mechanized the extermination process was in the concentration camps.
I quickly realized that the whole exhibit is designed as an assault on one's senses, and I do mean assault. My ears were under constant assault. As I moved from room to room, I heard Hitler’s speeches, the wails of children, the screams of frenzied crowds and the moaning of people attacking me from speakers in the ceiling.
My eyes were under constant assault. There was nowhere to turn; there was no place to look away. From floor to ceiling, and sometimes on the floor and ceiling, are videos, pictures, objects and text. It’s incredible that this enormous destruction of ways of life, businesses, people and families is all documented. I couldn’t help wondering why people feel no shame or guilt when they commit repulsive acts on film. I watched people burning books, Hitler giving speeches and flying around the country and campaigning for office, Jews being herded onto railroad cars, slave laborers toiling, new arrivals at concentration camps having their hair shaved off, Storm Troopers chasing people down the streets — hitting old people and kicking the ones who fell — and doctors going into the countryside to gather information on the Roma (gypsies) and measure their noses, ears and eyes. I even watched some of the horrific medical experiments and their results until I could bear it no longer.
I stood in a railroad car that had actually been used to take Polish Jews to Treblinka, and I immediately began to feel claustrophobic and nauseated at the thought of being packed in there with 99 other people with no sanitation, no food and little water, while freezing in the winter or roasting in the summer.
I spent close to six hours looking at pictures of people who had been starved and beaten, listening to oral histories from concentration camp survivors, passing by the “debris” of lives that had ended brutally (a massive mound of human hair, two huge piles of shoes, a pile of hair brushes, a pile of razors and other toiletries and piles of luggage) and cringing when I passed a wall that was covered with picture after picture of forearms with numbers tattooed on them. In a visceral way, I felt the assault that the museum intended.
I turned a corner and found myself next to trunks of trees that were in the woods outside a camp in Poland where prisoners escaped and hid. I could almost hear their whispers, feel their fear and hear their pounding hearts as they hoped for freedom but were recaptured.
I didn’t want to look, but my eyes were drawn to a wall covered with prisoners’ badges: the yellow stars for Jews (with “Jew” spelled in so many languages), the pink triangles for homosexuals, the black triangles for Roma and all of the other badges of different shapes and colors labeling people who were non-Jewish slave laborers, Soviet prisoners of war, political prisoners, etc. It seems as if it was effortless for the Nazi regime to categorize people. Maybe it is easier to do degrading and dehumanizing things to other people when they are seen as a “label” or a “type.”
I read about the horrors of slave labor and saw gruesome photographs of those poor people only to look down and see at my feet blocks of stone that had actually been cut out from one of the quarries by slave laborers. I took a quick step back as I realized that those stones and others like them cost thousands of starved prisoners their lives. I felt as if I was next to an instrument of torture and death.
If the intent of the Holocaust Museum is to assault its visitors, to grab their attention and to force them to confront images and facts whether the visitor wants to or not, it succeeds without a doubt.
However, if its intent is to inform people, to make them think and to provide a context for how the Holocaust occurred, it succeeds in that, also, as I will explain in tomorrow’s paper.
A. J. Ralls resides in Columbia and enjoys history and traveling.