I traveled to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., looking for permission to stare at history. And, like a mountain stripped of timber, the mass of evidence faced me, exposed and severe.
Should you choose this difficult pilgrimage, prepare to wander for perhaps hours through a deeply troubling spiritual labyrinth. Continuously playing audio tapes relay the sometimes steady, sometimes broken voices of liberators and survivors in otherwise quiet chambers of film footage, photos, and physical articles. The sound curiously measures the Holocaust word after word, one voice at a time.
Outside, across the street, a U.S. Department of Agriculture building sprawls. It exists, at base, to feed people. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum exists to nourish a different kind of hunger in a forgetful populace.
IN 1980, A UNANIMOUS act of Congress granted the museum 1.9 acres between 14th and 15th Streets Northwest, just paces off the Independence Avenue side of the Mall. Before opening, the museum renamed 15th Street as Raoul Wallenberg Place. The address now honors the Swedish diplomat in Hungary who rescued thousands of Jews until his arrest and disappearance in 1945.
Striving to educate a diverse public, the presidentially appointed Holocaust Council already has spent $168 million in private donations. Chair Harvey M. Meyerhoff and vice chair William J. Lowenberg hope the museum raises difficult issues of moral responsibility and individual choice. They believe it testifies "not only to the tragedies of our past, but to the hopeful possibilities of our future."
The architecture alone agitates desire for "hopeful possibilities," for balance and order and harmony. Strange corridors, irregularly shaped rooms, ramps, towers - a formidable onslaught of asymmetry encourages disorientation. Like the Holocaust victims, visitors often don't know quite where to turn or when they'll be free to live life normally again.
Lest we forget: Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Jehovah's Witnesses, gay men and lesbians, the physically and mentally handicapped - the Nazis considered them all "useless eaters," human beings unworthy of life. Jews, in fact, ranked as less than human. They were societal vermin, a detestable group as ignoble and hated as cockroaches. Appalling ideology caught fire on the dry heap of European anti-Semitism and perverse nationalism. When favorable political winds blew on Adolf Hitler, he eagerly lit the match.
In January 1942, Hitler crystallized the logistics of his "Final Solution." With unprecedented efficiency, the state-sponsored plan killed six million Jews, including one million children. Hitler believed his plan of genocide carried out the will of God: "I am following the Lord, finishing the job that the church started."
The museum exposes clear villains like Hitler as well as others, like 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther who said in 1543:
What should we Christians do about this rejected, damned folk, the Jews? I will give my dependable advice. First, set their synagogues or schools on fire. Then break up and destroy their homes....Third, take all their prayer books and Talmudic writings in which such idolatry and lies and curses and defamatory things are taught. Fourth, let the rabbis be forbidden, as they value their lives, to teach hence forth....
Let them [the Jews] wallow in misery and captivity as they incessantly lament and complain to God about us...[D]o not dispute much with the Jews about our Articles of Faith, for they are taught thus from their youth so there is no hope there. They must be forced through their misery...to process the Messiah and that He's our Jesus (from The Germans, by Adolf Schalk).
Of course, comparing Luther to Hitler is absurd. Yet, neither made a secret of their prejudices. With centuries of systemic church anti-Semitism behind him, Luther attacked the Jews metaphorically because they rejected Christ and forfeited salvation. Hitler attacked the Jews literally because to him, they represented a virus cured by eradication only.
EVERY TURN OF THE MUSEUM brings the worst - more documentation of suffering, debasement, and unspeakable cruelty. The debacle compounds as visitors journey down from the fourth floor (1933-1939: Before the Holocaust) to the third (1940-1944: The Final Solution) to the second (1945: Rescuers, Resistance, Liberation) to the Hall of Remembrance and the main entrance level where the Words of God carved in gold command, "You are my witnesses" (Isaiah 43:10).
Just past the threshold, an enormous black granite wall with these words from the Hebrew Bible confronts everyone's somber anticipation. Regardless of religion, race, or nationality, visitors leave seeing and hearing and experiencing the Holocaust on a much more personal level. So, Isaiah's prophecy to ancient Judah before he died in 680 B.C.E. speaks to us in 1993.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, writes in A Journey of Faith, "[T]he only way to fight bigotry and racism is to unmask it, to speak up, to not be indifferent. More words, but what else do we have? I have nothing else."
Yet with words, much more than with arms, a handful of guards could deftly manipulate a whole town's worth of victims. When promised water for good behavior, extremely dehydrated prisoners obeyed orders. Wouldn't you?
With words we ask questions without answers. Where was God? Where were God's people? Why didn't the Christian church in Europe do more? Why didn't the Allies destroy the Nazi death camp machine sooner?
The world must remember and must ask questions, no matter how perplexing. Wiesel says that the "fear of forgetting, [it is] the main obsession of all those who have passed through the universe of the damned."
The enemy, Wiesel points out, "relied on people's disbelief and forgetfulness...I owe the dead my memory. I am duty-bound to serve as their emissary, transmitting the history of their disappearance, even if it disturbs, even if it brings pain. Not to do so would be to betray them, and thus myself. I simply look at them. I see them and I write" (From the Kingdom of Memory).
You will see them too. You will see their faces, their names, their yellow stars and tattooed numbers. You'll see their home towns etched on skyways of glass. In your hand you may even carry a card issued at the museum's entrance complete with biographical information and a photo of someone your sex and age. You must wait, however, until your museum experience ends in order to discover how this person's life ended.
THE WALLS ENCASE something that stirs the soul. Beautifully scripted Hebrew on a large olive-colored ark reads, "Know the One before whom you stand." These words received someone's unrestrained wrath. Deep ax chops scar the wood with unmistakable malice. Who knows what else that arm and hand hurt?
A charcoal drawing by artist Käthe Kollwitz depicts hollow-eyed children fixing their faces on yours, vacantly imploring. Finally, they floated free as weightless plumes of smoke. We need to remember.
Intense images stun and leave indelible marks on memory: 21-year-old women with silver hair, walking skeletons draped in rags; a life-sized photo-mural of two S.S. walking with a ferocious, half-crazed-looking dog; thousands of shoes, knee-deep in one room...the musty smell of old leather. Who walked in these shoes? Who walks in the shoes you wear today?
Everywhere words and images reckon with ignorance.
Words, of course, carry both truth and lie directly. At the Auschwitz death camp, Obersturmfuhrer Hossler, camp commandant, addressed a group of Greek Jews in the dressing room at the portals of the gas chambers with these words (as paraphrased by Sonderkommando member Filip Muller):
On behalf of the camp administration I bid you welcome. This is not a holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work here for the welfare of a new Europe.
How you tackle this task is entirely up to you. The chance is there for every one of you. We shall look after your health, and we shall also offer you well-paid work. After the war we shall assess everyone according to his merits and treat him accordingly.
Now, would you please all get undressed. Hang your clothes on the hooks we have provided and please remember your number [of the hook]. When you've had your bath, there will be a bowl of soup and coffee or tea for all. Oh yes, before I forget, after your bath, please have ready your certificates, diplomas, school reports, and any other documents so that we can employ everybody according to his or her training and ability.
Would diabetics who are not allowed sugar report to staff on duty after their baths (from The Auschwitz Album, by Peter Hellman).
Zyklon B, the infamous deadly gas used in the death chambers, struck all hope as the deceived became the deceased within minutes.
American liberator Dorothy Wahlstrom worked as a nurse with the survivors at Dachau. Her words describe encountering the aftermath of the unfathomable.
We set up ward units in the S.S. barracks. Dead dogs lay in the kennels nearby, killed by our military after survivors told us they were used to tear away parts of prisoners' bodies on command. Survivors told us infants were torn limb from limb as their mothers watched. They told us that prisoners who could no longer work were used as live targets for machine gun practice. They mentioned other unspeakable atrocitiesmedical experiments, torture chambers - horrors too terrible to think up without having experienced them (from Witnesses to the Holocaust, by Rhoda G. Lewin).
On April 15, 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited "deliberately, in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda." He cabled Washington to explain that no written statement to date accurately recounted the horror. "For most of it, I have no words," he said to his colleague, Gen. George Marshall.
In the midst of madness, a three-story tower tapers up to an opaque skylight. It rises as a tribute to one community of vibrant Jewry prior to the Holocaust. More than a thousand photos cover four walls with smiles and poses. The families and friends pictured lived in Ejszyszki, Lithuania, before German Einsatzgruppen (mobile extermination squads) killed all but 29 of its 4,000 citizens in one day.
THE HALL OF REMEMBRANCE invites prayer, meditation...a chance to regroup at last. On the circular floor a flame dances, a delicate and rare example of color in a grey museum. Words wrap around the room's top rim: "...I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life..." (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Behind you, history seethes with the sorrow and shame of civilization gone completely awry. If the foulness of the Holocaust follows you forever, the museum's grip is as good as a trusting handshake. The deal seals new generations of prevention and promise.
PAM MELLSKOG is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.