I VISITED the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC with a friend last Friday. It's been open for several years now, and I had been meaning to go, but it's been immensely popular, and for a couple of years after it opened you had to wait months just to get tickets to get in. However, the initial rush of visitors seems to be over, and my friend was able to obtain tickets on-line for the day we were going.
I'm glad we went. It was a very intense experience. Not depressing, but intense and disturbing. I've been trying to deal with my feelings about it since.
I think one of the purposes of the Museum is to put a human face on horror, to make that well-known statistic of seven million deaths seem less like just another large number, and more like your mother, father, or best friend being starved, tortured, then murdered seven million times over. You've probably heard the Josef Stalin quote, "A single death is tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." The Holocaust Museum tries, with some success, to turn those million deaths into individual tragedies again.
Briefly, the permanent installation starts on the top floor, which has exhibits on the rise of the Nazis in Germany and of anti-Semitism, and the growing oppression of the Jews and other targets of Nazi hatred in Germany in the 1930's. The next floor down tells the story of the Holocaust, how it began, how it was carried out, what its victims were like. Maps, artifacts, photographs, recordings and films make the experience palpable and immediate. Here is a sewing machine from the Lodz ghetto; here is a casting of a table on which corpses were laid to have the gold in their teeth extracted; here is a railroad car that transported Jews to the camps, that you must walk through; here, on both sides of the walkway, are heaps of thousands of shoes of the dead, men's, women's, children's, plain or stylish, each pair once carefully chosen and purchased for daily use or enjoyment, just as you or I might do. A sequential diorama in miniatures depicts in horrifying detail the final stages in the gassing of a group of about a hundred individuals. The final floor of the permanent exhibit tells of those in Europe who rescued and hid Jews (I was surprised by their number: there is a wall of names that must be 40 feet or so in total length), of the liberation of the camps by the Allies, of the Nuremberg trials, and a little bit about the founding of the State of Israel.
The tone of the exhibit is very even. There are no exhortations, or expressions of 'how evil this all was!'. The facts are set forth in detail, with historical precision, and left to speak for themselves. The visitor must draw the appropriate conclusions. The presentation is even-handed. Although Jews were the main Nazi victims, many others were sent to the death camps, including Roma ('Gypsies'), Jehovah's Witnesses (who would not accept the power of the Nazi state as supreme), homosexuals, and political dissidents, and their stories are told as well. Those who covertly fought the Nazis in Germany during the war, and those who rescued and hid Jews are acknowledged in great detail. Controversies such as whether the death camps should have been bombed by the Allies, or whether the US should have participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin are explained well, although the Museum clearly has an opinion as to what the answers should be ('Yes' and 'No', respectively).
Oddly, I think the part that affected me the most was not the creepiness of anti-Semitism, or the horror of the extermination camps, but a wall of photographs of individuals from a Jewish shtetl (community) in Russia. Between 1890 and about 1943 four photographers (two of whom perished in the death camps) took hundreds of photographs of the shtetl's inhabitants. These photographs cover the walls of a narrow room two stories high, through which walkways on two different levels pass. They show ordinary people, doing ordinary things: family groups; children posing in dress clothing; lovers smiling, arms around each other, in a forest or meadow; college-age boys clowning for the camera; young people on holiday, boating on a lake or picnicking on the grass; a bashful bride in an elaborate white gown; serious married couples staring at the camera, looking rather like the couple in American Gothic; white-bearded old men, black-clad old women, student groups, plump babies. The inhabitants of this shtetl, along with many others in Russia and Eastern Europe, were taken to a concentration camp in 1943, and put to death. The shtetl is gone. No Jews live in the area today.
What struck me about this exhibit was the sheer ordinariness of the people in the photographs. These might be the people in any town in America, 50 or 100 years ago, working, studying, eating, playing, falling in love and marrying. These might be photographs from a trunk in your parents' attic, depicting your own relatives in the early years of the 20th century. They look so ordinary, so much like anyone else on earth. Why should anyone want to kill them? The horror is in the incomprehensibility. If part of the aim of the Museum is to 'put a face on horror', to make the visitor understand, not just intellectually but viscerally, that every one of those 7 million was an individual with a life a lot like himself, then this display is successful.
It took my friend and me about three hours to go through the permanent exhibit, and I wish we had had a little longer. There were several short films and video carrels on interesting subjects that I wish I could have paused for, and didn't. If you go, I would allot at least four hours, or spread your visit over a couple of days. I'm glad I went, and if you live anywhere near the Washington DC area, I urge you to go, too.