on September 8, 2009
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is on 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW. It sits directly next to the Bureau or Engraving and Printing. It sits directly diagonal SE of the Washington Monument. Admission to the Museum is free, but free tickets are required to the permanent exhibit on the Holocaust. We arrived early enough to secure tickets for later in the day.The exterior of the building quite industrial, with walls of concrete and brick and steel beams. The obligatory security screening with the magnetometer, wanding, and bag x-raying are a given. Liquids cannot be brought into the Museum. Photography and audio/video recording are not allowed.When we walked inside, we suddenly became aware the Museum is loosely modeled after the gas chambers of a Nazi concentration camp. The exterior concrete section resembles the guard tower and the brick exterior resembles the factory converted to gas chamber. The interior continues the industrial theme with much brick and steel, although much less intimidating. Although photography wasn’t allowed, we nicely asked a guard if we could simply snap a quick photo or two of the interior, and he let us take a few photos of the plaza inside the Museum.We went upstairs to the Museum’s permanent exhibition on the Holocaust, which required the tickets. We proceeded to a little machine that dispensed identification cards of a little child, maybe no more than 8-10 years old. We each took a card, mine was a little boy from some village in Poland. The first part of the tour focuses on the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism during the 1930’s. There are artifacts and recreations of different things depicting the negative reality facing European Jews at that time. There are hundreds of photos of burned out Jewish-owned stores, Nazi thugs confronting and beating Jews, and other displays about the daily hardships Jews went through. There is a little computer station where you can insert your ID card to see what is happening in the life of the child at this point in time.We proceeded downstairs for the second part of the tour, the events of World War II. The tours had more photos and displays illustrating conditions in the Jewish ghettos of Poland, being herded onto the cattle cars, and life, if you can call it that, in the concentration camps. There were displays of the living quarters, slave labor, and inhumanity that the Nazi doctors put the Jews through. There is a recreation of a cattle car used to transport Jews to the concentration camps. We boarded the car, and heard audio stories from firsthand survivors about their experiences in these camps. There is another computer station for the identification cards. I stuck mine in and it revealed that the child on my card was carted off to Treblinka. The second phase of the tour is very oppressive, and there wasn’t much for us to say about the squalid conditions the Jews were forced to live in.We went downstairs for the third part of the tour, which has more heartening stories, with indivdual Jews taking the initiative to save other Jews at great personal risk to themselves. One such person was the King of Demnark, who hid Jews in his country. This phase of the tour also tells of the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allies, subsequent Nuremberg Trials, and the emigration of Jews to America and Israel. There is a movie, probably an hour long, called "Testimony," where the Holocaust survivors tell their personal stories. The tour ends in the Hall of Remembrance, where you can light a candle for a survivor. There is one final computer terminal to check on the status of the child on your identification card. The child on my card never made it out of Treblinka. That was very sobering, as I expected him to survive and live a long and fruitful life. The identification cards do a good job of personalizing the Holocaust, by having us experience a bit of what the child on the card went through.A Museum employee stopped by to chat with us, he was a Holocaust survivor. The Museum has Holocaust survivors on staff to answer any questions, and to bring the whole experience at the Museum to life. He told us about the times in the camps, and what kept him going. He showed us the identification numbers the Nazis tattooed into this forearm, which serves as a powerful living reminder of the Holocaust. We didn’t have much to say, mostly because we didn’t know what would be appropriate to ask of him.The rest of the Museum has displays on intolerance around the world, such as the genocide in Darfur, Bosnia, and Congo. There is also the exhibit called Daniel’s Story, Remember the Children, which commemorates the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust. There is also a gift shop and a snack shop in the Museum.The Museum is a very powerful experience that evokes a bunch of different emotions, from horror to sadness, to anger that people could allow such things to happen. This is definitely not for little children. I wish we didn’t need such museums, but unfortunately in the world we live in, we do, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does a great job of educating us and letting us learn from history.
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