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What I Learned from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

August 17, 2019

Culture and Society / Roque Recommends

It was late in the sweltering afternoon. The day was Thursday, August 8, 2019, in Washington, DC. I was lucky to find a street vendor who sold cups of ice cream. I ordered my favorite flavor, cookies and cream, and sat down on the steps of the Department of Agriculture building nearby.

I needed that ice cream. I needed it more than I usually would. I needed it because I had just spent most of the entire day taking in the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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<p>It was late in the sweltering afternoon. The day was Thursday, August 8, 2019, in Washington, DC. I was lucky to find a street vendor who sold cups of ice cream. I ordered my favorite flavor, cookies and cream, and sat down on the steps of the Department of Agriculture building nearby.
<p>I needed that ice cream. I needed it more than I usually would.

If you have never visited this place, you should know that it is almost entirely devoted to the mass killings of millions of Jews (along with quite a number of gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, and homosexuals among them) at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi German forces during World War II. There is a palpable, almost surreal, sadness about this place. This is what separates this museum from the Smithsonian and other attractions in our nation’s capital.

You will not find delightful enjoyment here. What you will witness is a sobering account of how hatred and evil can manifest themselves in a real-world scenario and how resilience and compassion still bloomed against impossible and incomprehensible odds.

The first part of the museum I experienced was a section called “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story.” Pages of a diary that a boy named Daniel had written introduce each part of this exhibit. We essentially see the world of the holocaust through a child’s eye. You walk through a replica of the small and downtrodden home he shared with his sister and his parents. With each step, you gradually get to understand the intense severity of his life.

Yet, despite such desperate and meager circumstances, there is a child’s innocence that resonates in those diary pages and in those spaces. I thought this exhibit, which seemed to be tailored for much younger patrons, was incredibly clever, tastefully designed, and very rich. As an adult, I thought it was particularly heartbreaking, but maybe a child would not think so.

Up next, I went into the auditorium. The museum had invited a holocaust survivor named Kurt Pauly for its First Person Speaker Series to share his stories and answer questions on this day. For over an hour, I got to hear about what it was like to be a Jewish child growing up in that era and what his father had done to get his family out of Germany.

Afterward, I got to meet him, ask a question, and get a portrait taken with him by the professional photographer on site. (As soon as I get that photo, I will update this post to feature it.)

Finally, after leaving the auditorium, I headed toward the sliding doors that took you into the main event. The permanent exhibit winds itself around the building in a way that makes you go up and down different levels. It certainly feels like a journey as you travel through and the darkness of it all slowly unravels.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but at every turn along the way in the museum’s permanent exhibit, I felt waves of sorrow crashing into me. Just when you think it could not possibly get sadder, you walk over to the next part of the exhibit from where you were, and it does.

There are historical details that are shared along with numerous stories about the sheer hopelessness and devastation of it all.

One beautiful space (among many) displays hundreds of photos of families. These portraits are mounted on the walls and go all the way up into a high skylight. You can see entire families in their daily lives, children with bright eyes and warm smiles, friends among friends, tender moments with laughter, and quiet moments of dignity. It crushed me to know that all of the people in these photos were cruelly decimated and wiped out of existence for simply being who they were.

I could go on and on about the rest of what I saw, but that is not a story for me to tell on my own. I hope that, by writing this post, I have planted a seed of interest in you, my dear reader, to someday make a pilgrimage to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is not an easy place to experience, but it is completely worthwhile.

I took my time going through the entire exhibit, but there were still several components that required closer attention. I could easily spend another day combing through everything. Even all that I have shared with you in this post is but a small fraction of what the museum has to share.

I’ll leave you all with a question that I have an answer to.

Was it all hopelessness and devastation?

Thankfully, no.

Amid the ruins that are laid bare are stories of scrappy, gritty survival and countless stores of heroism and compassion by people who did not stand idly by. People from all walks of life carried out covert operations to save Jewish families and children across Europe. These people, despite the danger to themselves and their own families, did all they could. They were extraordinary.

I have seen Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, and I’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank. I thought I knew enough about the Holocaust. I was wrong. Here is a short list of what I took away from my day learning about the holocaust:

  • Nationalism, when it sweeps over an entire nation, will be blind to the danger it presents against those who deviate from its demands.
  • Question and defy anyone who teaches you to disrespect and devalue another human being.
  • Adolf Hitler was the epitome of evil.
  • One cannot imagine how truly terrible it was to live in a Nazi concentration camp. Try to do so, and the truth was worse than that.
  • The holocaust did not end with the demise of Nazi Germany. It is still happening against various ethnic groups across the world to this day.
  • My heart goes out to the survivors. To know that the lives of their loved ones were taken in such a cruel, inhumane, and heartless way is simply soul-crushing. They carried this hurt in their hearts for the rest of their lives.
  • The United States government could have done more to stop the World War II holocaust from happening, but they did not. This is infuriating.
  • The US government, despite knowing what was actually happening, turned away Jews from coming to the US to escape persecution and death.
  • The country of Denmark secretly transported 7,800 Jews (along with almost 700 non-Jewish spouses) by small boats and across the sea over to Sweden, thereby safeguarding their lives against the Nazi’s and their concentration camps.
  • RAOUL WALLENBERG. Find out who he was, and then carve out a small space in your heart to remember his name.

It might surprise you to know that my visit to the USHMM was an item on my life’s bucket list. I am extremely happy and grateful to have been able to do this. Thank you to my friends Rob and Preston for unknowingly helping to make this happen.

So yeah, ice cream. I sat on the steps of the Department of Agriculture building that stands across the street from the museum. Most people look happy and content when they eat ice cream. I was a total sad sack, and I must have actually looked quite pitiful. My energy was depleted, and after all that I had seen that day, I felt so sad. The flavor of that ice cream started to draw me out of that dark place.

At the end of the exhibit, patrons are invited to write on sheets of paper and share thoughts about what they learned from it all.

First, I expressed gratitude for the careful and thorough attention paid to every detail. I believe that the exhibits at the USHMM are of the highest quality. They are tasteful, poignant, unsentimental, and honest.

Lastly, I wrote the words, “Compassion must guide us, all the days of our lives.”

Absolutely, it must.