Everyone should visit the United State Holocaust Museum, but not willingly. There should be fear, dread, sleepless nights, anxiety, even cynicism. Otherwise one’s mind is going to treat the trip like a visit to any other museum. And the United States Holocaust Museum is not just any other museum. It is not fun, amusing, or enlightening in the way of most museums. To keep from museum-izing the experience the museum humanizes it immediately by giving every visitor a small folder with a picture on it. You are this person. His or her story is told in the folder. It could just as well be your story–if you were a Jew, or Catholic priest, or homosexual, or communist, but mostly if you were a Jew.
To me the museum serves two purposes. One is to drill down deep into the hearts and minds of those who accept the Holocaust as a unique evil, the only state sponsored barbarity created to wipe a people off the face of the earth leaving in their place a “Museum of the Jews.” Truth.
The other is to present to the skeptic in exquisitely irrefutable fact presented in the form of gentle pressure relentlessly applied a crushing mountain of fact. That is why one walks through the hallway of history compressed together with others to sense the growing discomfort of close quarters, not to be able to see what’s up ahead, to be moved gently but be moved relentlessly off one’s center spot of comfort.
One’s path through the museum takes one through an actual railroad car used to carry Jews, like the cattle that were previously hauled in it, to death camps. Two realities hit one immediately. It is smaller than one imagined and the small window at one end let’s in little light and no sight. Humans, unlike cows, need to know where they are going. Without that fear, panic, desperation set in. People would break holes in wooden slats so sometimes some people could see something. But that something told them nothing. They got a breath of fresh air that quickly turned stale. There were no toilets, maybe a bucket in the car. It was for everyone, but not nearly everyone could get to it. In the summer the temperatures rose to extreme heights. In the winter they dropped to extreme lows. The Yellow Brick Road it was not.
The Room of Shoes is another stunner. It confronts the visitor with thousands of little shoes each and every one of which had a little foot in it, boy or girl. One finds oneself staring at this shoe or that trying to divine some sense of humanity from it. Was there anything that a given shoe can tell about its given owner? Was the person shy, or outgoing, wealthy or poor, athletic or not? Please shoe, tell me something. Anything. Don’t just lay there as testimony to murder and mayhem.
But that is exactly what it does. One can make from it a story. It is your story; the shoe keeps its own story to itself. Yet in that invented story of the visitor grows a humanity to the events. That is why all throughout the visit, in spite of the callous, insouciant teen I-phone user texting away as he or she marches through an assignment unaware of those pictured on the walls marching through hell to their deaths, one hears gasps, groans, sighs and sees more than an occasional tear as one bubble of comfort brought in from the outside is grabbed at, stretched, squeezed, and burst.
This last visit it happened right next to me. The texting teen bumped into me as she wended her way toward an exit sign. The bump put me into a different flow of people. I was standing next to a late 40 something woman with her husband. From their dress,they were definitely not east coast folks. We were at least half way through the exhibit having seen speeches by Hitler and his henchmen, movies of beatings and killings. Yet the picture that got to her was a picture of the first “roll call” at Dachau for a group of new arrivals. I tried to count the numbers of people dressed in suits, ties, nice dresses standing for the roll call in that hall. The picture didn’t hold them all. Easily a thousand. It was this picture, probably bolstered by those that that come before that elicited, in hushed tones, an, “O my God!” from her. The light had dawned.
Every time even the experienced visitor finds something to produce such a moment. This time for me it came from a film clip of a camp liberation. A near dead, desperate man scrambled, stumbled, dragged himself through the mud. His goal? A garbage can from which he began scooping hands full of who knows what. I gagged and got dizzy. I became sicker yet when I realized that he had survived the camp and had no doubt just poisoned himself to death from the filth and bacteria he was shoveling into a bodily system in total dysfunction.
Nor does the museum’s mantra of “Never Again” apply just to Jews. The Cambodian massacres are documented. A brand new exhibit of the ISIS atrocities in Syria had just opened. The museum wants you to understand that what you saw wasn’t then. One learns by intuition that the impulses that caused The Holocaust and other genocides to happen are, like a virus, still out there and still infecting people with horrendous results. That is why there is a big sign on the outside of the building that commands, “Think about what you just saw!”
So go. Go with fear and loathing. Go prepared to think about what you saw after you saw it. It is only out of the disgust that clothes the visitor that the hope of “never again” is born.