On Sunday I promised that I’d tell you guys about my experience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. At the time it seemed simple enough. Turns out it’s not. Because I’ve been trying–too hard–to find the right words to describe exactly what it did to me, being there. Seeing and hearing and smelling that place. I guess instead I’ll do what it is I usually do…I’ll just tell you about the day and hope it does the trick.
When you step inside, you can’t help but be somber. It’s all hard bricks and glass and grey, metal rafters. Sharp angles. Cold, even in the DC heat. You’re given an Identification card, the life story of a Holocaust survivor. Or of someone who didn’t survive. Words and pictures to hold in your hand; to bring home so you don’t forget. Mine told the story of a Jewish man named Miksa Deutsch.
Then a creaky, creepy elevator takes you to the actual memorial. A film played on a small tv on the way up, but I have no idea what it was about. I was too busy reading about Miksa Deutsch. He had a wife and three kids. They lived in Hungary. He and his brother owned a small, prosperous business. I could imagine him looking forward to the future, to a time when his children might learn about the family business from their dad and their uncle. They might even take over the management someday. And, eventually, it might pass to their children. Dads dream about things like that. But by 1942, he was in a labor camp, his business gone. He died in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. He was 47.
Then the door opens up. The room is dark and quiet. I remember seeing a larger than life photo on the wall. American soldiers surveying a pile of burned corpses. I remember turning to my kids, looking them over to see how they were holding up. They’d been prepared, but they’re only twelve and thirteen. And besides, there’s no way you can really be prepared. They were grim faced but determined. We pressed on.
Next, you’re given some historical background. This was–I will be honest–a welcome respite. It was also important because–of course–the questions you’re asking yourself, before you even step inside, are Why? Why did this happen? How did it happen? And they try, like everyone always does, to explain; not, of course, to excuse. And it goes like this: the Germans lose World War 1, harsh terms of the Versaille treaty, national humiliation, rampant inflation, political unrest, the Jews are quick and easy scapegoats. Hitler comes to power on January 30, 1933. On February 28 a state of emergency is declared in Germany, and civil rights are suspended. That’s right…it happened in less than a month. After that comes the propaganda and…well, the stage is set for persecution, boycotts of businesses, deportation to ghettos. Yellow stars.
As I made my way deeper into the museum, I noticed that it was slightly darker–or maybe it was my imagination–and that the rooms were smaller. The walls were narrower. The building, the world, was closing in on us. There was quite a large crowd there, but the place was as close to silent as it could be. Footsteps and an occasional gasp at another heart wrenching photo or discarded momento…that was it. It became difficult to stay together as a family unit without plowing into other guests, so we gave the kids a little freedom and separated. No worries. Thirteen and twelve. They’ll be fine.
Next floor: The Final Solution.
That phrase has always gotten to me. Solution: an answer to a problem. And that’s when everything I’d learned on the second floor didn’t make sense again, when the Why came back. Because who can give a shit about possibly unfair treaty terms and rampant inflation when you’re inside a replica of a concentration camp? When you’re walking through an actual boxcar that carried thousands of men and women and children to their death? When you’re looking at photos of those women and children shortly after they climbed out of those boxcars at Auschwitz? They’re standing there, waiting to die. And they don’t know it. They’ve been told they were sent there to work. It’s what the sign says: “Work Sets You Free.” Sick Nazi bastards.
I stared at one of those pictures for a long time. It was of a Jewish boy, maybe ten or eleven years old. He’s wearing a wool cap and a wool overcoat, staring at the camera. Staring at me. He looks a little lost, a little overwhelmed at his new surroundings, but he doesn’t look scared. Because he doesn’t know that most of the women and children were gassed within hours of arriving at the camp. That it’s about to happen to him. His eyes are enormous and I can’t look away. And as I stare his face changes gradually, almost imperceptibly, until finally I am looking at my son. In black and white and grey, wearing a wool cap and a wool coat. And he doesn’t know…
That’s when I noticed I couldn’t breathe. And that I needed–I needed–to find my son. It was crowded, though, and he wasn’t anywhere near me. And I couldn’t run. So I walked as quickly as I could through the crowd, trying to find him; catching a glimpse of a picture here, a glassed exhibit there. I stopped at one of them. Three small stacks: toothbrushes, combs, razors. Rusted and dusty. Abandoned forever. They stared up at me, too. Then I moved on. Down the crowded corridor. Around a corner.
And there he is. My son. He’s looking down at an exhibit that’s hidden from view. I stare at him for a few moments while I catch my breath. He is wearing a red t-shirt and worn blue jeans and his hair is getting a little long, curling around the ears. I think it’s cute, but it drives him crazy, so I know it’ll be time for a haircut once we get home.
Then I walk slowly over to him. I grab hold of his hand, because even though he’s right there, even though I can see him and smell him and hear him breathing, I still need to remind myself that he really is there. I notice, for the hundredth time, that he’s taller than me now, and that his hand is quite a bit bigger than mine. Even though he’s only thirteen. And I wonder how tall he’ll get to be when he’s all done growing. Moms do that sometimes. Then I squeeze his hand, knowing that he’ll shake it off. Embarrassed. Because that’s what thirteen-year-old boys do.
But he didn’t. He squeezed my hand right back and looked at me. He was crying silently. Then he turned his attention back to the exhibit he’d been looking at before I’d grabbed his hand. I followed his gaze. It was a video about the medical ‘experiments’ that were performed in Auschwitz. It was quite graphic, which is why it was hidden from general view.
“Mom,” he whispered. “See that doctor? He needed eighty bodies for an underwater experiment. So they sent him eighty bodies from the camp. They killed eighty people for him. Like it was no big deal. Like a catalogue order or something.”
Then he let go of my hand. And he didn’t ask why. And I was glad. Because there is no why.