Our Nation’s Capitol
By, Stephanie Cottrell Bryant
Every time I go to Washington, I learn something about the world, our country, and about myself, and this time was no different. A few years ago, I realized that the Star Spangled Banner was the only song that could consistently bring tears to my eyes, and that the thing I believe in most, what I find faith in, is this nation. On this trip, I also went to the National Archives and the Library of Congress– like the faithful to the shrines, you could say.
On Saturday, we went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Whew. I’m still processing the experience. It was pretty intense, really. The whole architecture is chaos, every turn has some horrible photograph or artifact from the ghettos and the camps. The Exhibit is divided into three floors, which you work your way down until you arrive at the bottom. The elevator to take you to the fourth floor (the first floor of the exhibit) is all metal and discordance, design to look like the gas chambers. During the ride up, a TV screen shows footage of a Holocaust survivor talking about how these things must not happen again.
The fourth floor starts out with the start of the Holocaust and World War II. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany, the economic and social collapse that happened after WWI. A movie theater (for which there is quite a wait) has continuous showings of a film describing the history of the persecution of the Jews as a religious group. The first German laws rescinding Jewish freedoms, including the racial ideology that “Jew” is an ethnic, not a religious distinction. One important and interesting note was that, in the face of stepped-up persecution, the Jewish community responded by banding together; attendance at synagogue increased, as did participation in Jewish sports teams and other community organizations. In the ghettos, an unofficial welfare system of sharing rationing resources was set up by the Jewish Councils.
It was also stressed that the Jews weren’t the only people marked for extermination by the Nazis. Roma, homosexual, Jehovah’s Witness, Communist, multiracial (part Jewish or part African), eventually even the Catholics. I almost cried when I read that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were taken to the concentration camps and given the option to renounce their religion and be freed. Not a single one took that option.
Also, the first part discusses the executions and experiments done on mentally and physically disabled people, mass, compulsory sterilization, and how this group was the first group to be targeted for total annihilation.
The first part of the exhibit is grueling. It took John and me an hour to go through it. The whole exhibit is dark, individual sections being lit only by incandescent bulbs from above. One of the first things you see when you come in are uniforms worn by the concentration camp inmates; it’s also one of the last things you see on your way out.
The second floor of the exhibit (floor three of the museum) has the gritty details of the “Final Solution.” For me, this was the hardest part of this museum. I can’t even describe how hard it was to walk through the railcar that was used to transport inmates to the death camps, resting on rails taken from the railway leading right up to Auschwitz. In some places, the railroads went almost to the doors of the gas chambers.
I have to admit, I passed by the part of the exhibit that showed the children’s experiences, and their stories; it would have been impossible. A model of Crematorium II (from the Auschwitz death camp) graphically illustrated the process of murdering and cremating up to a thousand people at a time. Over and over, it was repeated that inmates arriving at death camps were quickly divided into two groups; those who could be worked to death, and those who would be killed outright. In some cases, people arrived with their personal belongings, having come directly from their homes, hopeful of the promised “relocation” policy.
The third floor also had an exhibit of shoes, taken from prisoners and victims who died in the death camps. Shoes of all types and sizes. Poetry has been written about these shoes, for how do you adequately express the meaning of tens of thousands of shoes, lying in a tremendous pile, next to piles of other personal booty: personal effects, teeth fillings, umbrellas, and shorn hair that was used to make, ironically, felt shoes.
Each exhibit is separated into two spaces, divided by a walkway passing over the atrium and museum below. On each walkway, glass walls display the names of communities and people who were annihilated in the Holocaust.
On the third floor, however, the walkway led into a much darker walkway. “Work will set you free.” Yes, the infamous gates from Auschwitz were there on display (or maybe a casting of them– I really couldn’t read the plaque at that point). That part led into the main exhibit on the death camps. Part was a mock-up of the barracks and the beds which held up to 6 men apiece. The casting of a gas chamber door, the model of the crematorium, and even castings of the ovens used to burn the bodies.
On this level, the exhibit examined the non-Jewish citizens of Germany, and their perceptions of the Holocaust. The cover-up done by the Nazis was amazing. People didn’t believe this was happening, that it could happen. The non-Jewish citizens saw glimpses, here and there, but few were truly aware, due to the Nazi propaganda, of the extent of the atrocities. Even as the Nazi party had already decided and set into motion plans to commit genocide on millions of people, few actually understood what was happening. Foreign powers, the US included, also had some idea, even knew about the death camps. But while Americans condemned the actions of the Nazis, they didn’t support actions which would help, such as providing a safe haven for Jewish refugees or bombing the camps (despite bombing a military target just 5 miles from Auschwitz III).
The second floor (last floor of the exhibit) is titled the “Last Chapter.” It’s devoted to those who risked themselves to save people from the genocide practiced by the Germans, as well as a final tally of the number of lives, communities, and societies annihilated by the Nazis. Each German-occupied country was totaled up, some having lost just 1 in 10 Jews (Denmark), thanks to rescue efforts and local government policies. Others, like Norway, were completely rid of Jewish people by the end of World War II. In those cases, the Nazis had succeeded in their efforts; all Jews had either been executed or fled to other countries, and in many places, that legacy remains. Footage from the liberation of the camps is all over the place, and the role of foreign powers (especially America) is more closely examined there.
After you leave the exhibit, you enter the Hall of Remembrance. A round room, with a glass atrium and lots of light provides space to sit and contemplate. An eternal flame flickers above a black marble memorial containing soil gathered from the camps and from graves of soldiers who fought for the freedom of those who had been targeted. The walls are lined with votive candles, all lit, and the marble walls above the candles are etched with the names of the camps and death marches. Above, there are two quotes from the Bible which are particularly appropriate, although I cannot of course remember them now.
One thing that made this particularly moving was that the Neo Nazis, the “Knights of Freedom” had scheduled a protest march in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, the very same day we went to the museum. The police were called in, streets were blocked off, and a counter-protest was staged on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We arrived at the Lincoln Memorial as that rally was drawing to a close, and Jesse Jackson was delivering an affirmation speech. We entered the Memorial to the sound of about a hundred people singing “We Shall Overcome” in unison with a black opera singer (whose name I cannot remember). As I was composing an email on the day’s events, the news was on, informing us that the neo nazis cancelled their demonstration. The City of Washington, DC is considering suing them for the cost of providing officers and resources for a protest that never happened. Out of the 300 expected, only 4 showed up. A victory, in my mind, to enlightened thinking and peace over hatred.
As I mentioned, we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial as the conuter-protest was ending, drained and exhausted by the Holocaust Museum. The Museum took us 3 hours to go through, 1 hour for each floor. We could probably have spent more time, but we were still somewhat tired from yesterday’s tour. Next to the Lincoln Memorial (a fitting interlude to the Holocaust Museum), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands in reflective black marble, a dark reminder of our own bloody legacy.