I enter the recently opened Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., join a crowd of strangers and begin travelling through time. Our group moves from one historical moment to the next. We observe Kristallnacht, the burning of books, mass murders, rape, and other Nazi atrocities. Each event brings us closer to Hitler’s “final solution.”
Passing beneath an arching sign, ARBEIT MACHT FREI (work sets you free), I enter Auschwitz—following the trail of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, cousins, children, countless members of the human family. First, the selection: to the left or to the right, to gas showers or living hell.
To The Left
A scale model of Auschwitz’s Crematorium II depicts the journey too many were condemned to take: down a stairway to an undressing room, and from there to an underground gas chamber. Naked bodies massed together, each struggling to survive. Gold teeth and fillings pulled from corpses as they lay on the ground. Hair shaved from their heads. And, then, their final destination. Ovens.
Wanting to control my emotions while bearing witness, I take a deep breath and steel my innards. The next exhibit displays empty canisters of Zyklon B. (The insecticide that gassed my Grandmother.)
I enter a room of shoes. These shoes survived, but not their owners. A stale musty smell pervades the room, for the shoes carry a stench from the past, reminding me of the horrors they witnessed. (Could one have belonged to Grandmother?)
To The Right
After selection came tattoos. No longer a name, now a number. At least Grandmother was spared this indignity. But like others entering Auschwitz, Grandfather would have been branded on his left arm. And then he would have been shaved.
I stand staring at a display filled with human hair—swatches in shades of black, brown, yellow, white, and grey.
Unable to look at the hair any longer, I read the accompanying placard and learn that the Nazis found a use for everything. They sold their victims’ hair. When soldiers liberated Auschwitz, they discovered 15,000 pounds of human hair in bales averaging 40 pounds each. (Was Grandfather’s hair in one of those bales, or was it sold to make felt slippers or stuffing for a mattress?)
Continuing my journey through time, I view photographs of death marches and learn that on January 18, 1945 about 60,000 prisoners were removed from Auschwitz. About 15,000 died during that march. (Each life precious, one my Grandfather’s.) I stare at a photograph of prisoners with grey camp blankets draped over their shoulders, each barely surviving, yet struggling to continue. (Is Grandfather among them? Which one might he be?)
Moving on to Liberation, I wait my turn to watch a display of film clippings. The first is of Auschwitz and Dachau. I look at haggard faces and emaciated bodies stuck atop toothpick legs. Some survivors are too weak to walk; soldiers carry these skeletons to shelter. (Could one be Aunt Friedl?)
I stand transfixed before one person’s eyes: wide open eyes, haunted, staring. They gaze at me and through me—as if perpetually drowning in an internal sea of horror. Rescuers help and support his body, but his mind appears frozen in time, stuck inside the terrors of his past.
I stare at piles of decomposing dead bodies. A fly moves in and out of one person’s nostrils.
At Liberation, I lose control over my emotions. Pent up feelings erupt, tears stream from my eyes, and my chest heaves with inner sobs. Moving away from the exhibit, I search for a place where I can pull myself together. Luckily I find a bathroom nearby, where I hide inside a stall. My face twitches as tears roll down my cheeks. I struggle for composure, trying to contain my raging emotions and quell my tears.
When my chest eventually stops heaving, I blow my nose and resume my journey. After passing exhibits describing the plight of survivors and their search for a homeland, I walk into an area where a movie is being shown.
The movie consists of interviews with survivors. I sit mesmerized by their stories—poignant moments of hope, bravery, courage, rebellion, anger, faith, and love. Many cared for each other despite deplorable living conditions, reminding me of humanity’s decency. Tears fall from my eyes with each testimony. I wipe the tears away, but am unable to locate a tissue in my backpack and sit sniffling through the movie.
A woman speaks from the screen, saying, “One should never give up. Giving up is a final solution to a temporary problem.” Another man says, “The future—there was none. But we didn’t give up.”
The movie ends with a female survivor asking us all to bear witness, to stand up to every form of persecution, to make sure such atrocities can never happen again. Not to anyone. Not ever!
People around me start leaving the area. Many quietly wipe tears from their eyes. I continue to sit, still sniffling away. The woman next to me leans over and asks, “Are you alright?”
I am initially taken by surprise. (My grandparents were murdered along with millions of other good people. Such suffering! And courage! How can anyone be alright with that?)
Appreciating her expression of caring concern, I smile reassuringly and say, “Thank you. I’m fine.”
A voice announces that the museum will soon close. It is time to leave, but I have trouble pulling myself away from the exhibits.
Finally following the crowd, I drag myself into a hallway, pass beneath a sign that says “Hall of Remembrance,” and enter a spacious place. A flame burns on a coffin-shaped grey slab of granite at the far end of the sky-lit room.
Walking around this six-sided space, I sense six million ghosts swirling above me, behind me, and around me. They are here to remind us of human nature’s dark side. They are here to protect us from ourselves.
WE MUST NEVER FORGET!