“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural.”
– Diane Setterfield
We have been removed from the Holocaust Museum over four days now and its grip on me is still so strong. Never before have I experienced something so horrific and heart wrenching. It seems everything I do and see is somehow twisted by my mind to make me remember what I saw.
The above inscription by Dwight D. Eisenhower is chiseled into the stone near the entrance and the foreboding message does not prepare you for what you will soon bear witness to. The austere and stark building that houses the museum could not be architecturally designed any better, save taking you to the camps themselves. The concrete, brick and steel that make up the building are cold and unrelenting. This is not a building for you to be comfortable. It is hard. Perhaps these feelings are brought on because you have an inkling of what lies ahead. We have all heard stories, read books and learned in school about what happened in the Holocaust. You know it is bad. Really bad. Oh how I wish it was only as terrible as what I thought I knew.
You are given an identification card and put onto an elevator to the fourth floor. Your identification card is real, but it is not you that it identify’s. It Fred’s. Fred Bachner. Born September 28, 1925 in Berlin, Germany. Born into a Jewish family. The doors open to a darkened room and immediately your senses take over. It is cold. I hear chanting and shouting. There is a projector playing a video across the wall and dark shadows are moving through the room. It is the beginning. The beginning of the Reich. Post World War I Germany and a country on the brink of revolution. And young Adolph Hitler. So much I did not know about Germany at this time. The Reich as a political party, Hitler running for President, German revolution and more. It is all there. All you have to do it read and watch.
You move forward. Not because you really want to. It is getting worse. Hitler becomes Chancellor and immediately it begins. Not against the Jews, but against his political rivals. The SS clash openly in the streets with their rivals and many are locked into camps, tortured and killed. I wasn’t ready for the brutality. How could someone?
Room by room Susan and I continue, deep in our own thoughts. There are newspaper articles, news broadcasts, radio shows and political posturing. Why didn’t someone do something? Room after room there are photos of Jewish people who were removed from their home, their friends, and family. The next room is covered floor to ceiling with photos. What you don’t realize until you fully enter this room, is that it is three stories tall. Three stories. Wall to wall photos. Real people. People who laughed, loved, and tried to give their children the best life they could. Single portraits, family portraits, children, parents, men, woman, old and young. They were all there in the tower. Who were they? What was their story? What were they like before the Holocaust began?
There was audio. A room where survivors told their stories. Are they really survivors? Is it better to live knowing what you have seen and experienced, or to let the horrors die with you? I remember sitting and listening to them recount small details of their trials, and I just stared at the ground. I couldn’t bear to look at another person. These people were real, and the people that did this to them were real too. They weren’t some demonic army . They were neighbors. People you would see every day.
We have all heard the numbers. Millions of people died in the concentration camps. That is astounding, but it is such a number that it makes it hard to wrap your brain around. At its height Auschwitz would kill over 10,000 people a day in the gas chambers. A day! What becomes of those bodies, their clothes, their shoes? Oh the shoes! How can the sight of a shoe be so horrible? It was! It was one of the most horrific things I have ever seen. Shoes turned black with age covering the floor of the entire room. People walked in these shoes. Walked to their death in these very shoes that I am staring at. Old musty leather fills the room. Thousands of shoes, black as death, and all telling the same story. The image is burned in my head and will haunt me.
Hours had passed in a horrible instant. We continued on and when you imagined it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Coming into another large room, I saw people surrounding a concrete wall and looking down. I couldn’t fathom what they were looking at. I made my way to the wall and looked over too and was immediately assaulted by images of the medical testing the German barbarian doctors were performing. I then realized why there were walls. So children wouldn’t see these images. How I wished the wall had been taller so I wouldn’t have seen them either. So horrific and research perfect the images and videos were. So graphic and disgusting. There is no erasing the images.
Towards the end is the arrival of the allied forces. For once in my life there was no pride in our military. I was done. My nerves were shot and I was numb. They end the exhibit with a wall devoted to the people who had the courage to look death in the eye and not succumb to the fear. They hid people, gave money, food, lodging, false papers and risked their lives and their own families lives to help complete strangers survive. Why? Because they knew that what was going on was wrong. Every story I read, I asked myself the same question. Would I have the courage to be one of these courageous people? Oh, how I hope so.
We end with a stop into the Hall of Remembrance. We had the pleasure of having this room almost to ourselves. We rounded the room and read the names of each of the concentration camps. I don’t know of anyone who was in the camps. I didn’t lose a family member in World War II. But I was shaken to my core by what I had just seen. People are fond of saying We Will Never Forget in reference to 9/11. They have a saying on their walls too.
“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”
There is more to not forgetting or being a witness. It is our task to make sure this does not happen again and do our best to right the unjust. Things like this make you reevaluate your life, your passions, your dreams and the things that really matter in your life. I hope I have been able to give you a glimmer of my experience and the hope that always rises up from such atrocities.