Sitting on a bench on the third level of the Holocaust Museum, I took a moment to regroup. Certainly, I expected the museum to be a difficult experience, but on some level I thought: I’ve seen this all before. I’ve read about this in history classes, watched videos for research projects, and flipped through hundreds of pages of books about the Holocaust. It would be difficult, but I know all about it.
Regaining control of a normal heartbeat on that bench, I realized how wrong I was.
A couple of hours before we had entered the museum and passed through the standard, DC metal detectors that guard the entrance to the city’s greatest treasures. Once inside, we proceeded to the queue at the entrance to the exhibit. When it was our turn to step forward onto the elevators a man instructed us to pick up a small white booklet from either the “male” or “female” shelf.
“This will take you through the experiences of one real person who lived during the Holocaust,” he explained as we headed for our respective shelves.
I reached for a booklet on the “female” shelf, the one sticking out just a little further than the others, and thumbed through its pages inside the elevator. Her name was Dora Rivkina and she was born in Minsk on November 7, 1924. The second of three Jewish daughters, Dora danced as a young girl. She was the lead in her school’s New Year’s performance. In 1941, the German army invaded Minsk and Dora was forced into a ghetto with her family. When the ghetto was emptied two years later, Dora was 19 and joined a partisan group to evade the Nazis. It didn’t take long before the Nazis captured her group. And when they asked who among them was Jewish, it didn’t take long for her friends to point to Dora. Her hands were bound, a rock tied around her neck and she was thrown into a nearby river and shot.
I closed the booklet and looked up at the introductory video on the television screen as the elevator climbed four floors.
We began our self-guided tour here with the Nazi’s rise to power. Screens played videos of Nazi propaganda and book burnings, Hitler’s fiery speeches and day-to-day life in Germany under his rule. As we continued down the hall, things became more ominous as we read about the appeasement of Hitler and his rapid takeover in parts of eastern Europe. Screens showed Nazi and SS soldiers marching in formation through the streets of Germany, arms raised in a “hail Hitler” salute.
And then we came upon a plaque with something I had never heard before. The Evian-les-Bains Conference was called in France mid-1938 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (one of my personal heroes). At the conference, countries from all over the world discussed what they would offer Jewish refugees seeking an escape from Germany. They knew about the antisemitism they faced this early in the war and knew that many Jews would be seeking a new home, but instead of joining together to ensure Jews would be welcomed into theirs, most countries refused to change their current visa and immigration quotas. So when Jews in Europe had the fleeting opportunity to escape, they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.
One of the most vivid reminders of this is the story of the St. Louis. The ship left from Hamburg, Germany for Cuba in 1938 carrying 938 passengers (nearly all Jewish). When they arrived at the port in Havana, Cuban officials wouldn’t grant them permission to enter the country. So hundreds of passengers could see the shores of Havana, wave to their friends from the rails of the ship, and feel the warmth of land, but could not disembark. Most of the passengers returned to Germany where they were eventually taken to one of the most brutal death camps in history: Auschwitz.
Nearing the end of the fourth floor we proceeded down a glass hallway to a set of stairs the led to the third floor. This floor commemorated the “extermination” of the Jews in camps across Europe. As I said, I’d watched countless videos about this subject in school–studying books and audio clips, looking at letters and photographs, but nothing prepared me to walk through the same spaces that the Jews walked through before they were killed.
One point of the path led through one of the small wooden trains that held over 100 Jews and transported them to the death camps. From the outside it looked no bigger than a camping trailer. Carefully stepping onto the wood floor inside, a beam of light shining through the roof of the train car onto the wooden floorboards, I breathed in new air–warm and musty. And suddenly I could feel the presence of one hundred eyes on me. I ran out the other side of the train.
Past the metal gate bearing the infamous (and false) motto, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will set you free), one of the barracks came into view. Originally at Auschwitz, Jews lived here–cramped in small bunk beds full of lice. I could imagine hands resting on the pillars in the center of the barracks–of men and women who relaxed their bodies for a moment before leaving to work in slave labor during the day.
On the other side of the barracks was thick metal door in a glass case. This silver door once blocked the exit to the killing chambers where Nazis poured a chemical called Zyklon B into a compartment and within 20 minutes could kill hundreds.
This is when I took a seat on the bench nearby.
Because it’s one thing to look at pictures, but its something entirely different to occupy the same space that many of these people did. To stand where they stood with reflections of them hanging in their air around you. That’s when it truly sinks in that these places were real. These people were real. Just as real as you or me. And the scope of this genocide was enormous.
On that bench I had the sinking realization that genocides still exists today. I looked down at the leaflet in my hands bearing the words, NEVER AGAIN, in capitalized block letters. I agreed with that sentiment, but what was I doing about it? Certainly not enough. I probably couldn’t name more than three genocides currently plaguing the world when I’m sure there are at least a dozen more. I’ve never written a letter to my Congressman about them and I’ve never sought to help refugees from countries facing such fates.
When my family caught up with me and I regained composure we journeyed on, past the room full of shoes and the pungent scent of leather, past the portraits of the Lithuanian Jews from one village who never returned, and on to the hall of remembrance where a flame burned across the marble hall to remember all who died.
I will always remember that day at the museum and I encourage you to go and have one of your own. It’s a free exhibit, but it’s a good idea to order online in advance of your trip here. It’s just $1 to do so.
I’ll leave you with this poem that we were left with before we stepped back out into the warm reality of July in DC.
First They Came for the Jews
by Martin Niemöller
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.