After visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC last week, I was left with some thoughts about the museum and the people who were lost.
My overall impression was that the museum did a good job of emphasizing that above all, these were people like the rest of us that were lost during the Holocaust. They humanized the tragedy in a way I had never thought of before. A wall of pictures showed family portraits, candid photos, and people going about their daily lives; it was only later you found out their fate, and it was not good.
The numbers are overwhelming. 500. 2,000. 10,000. 30,000. 200,000. 2.2 million. 6 million. It is unfathomable how that many people could be murdered in the space of 6 or 7 years. The ruthless efficiency of the German soldiers and camps is mind-boggling. I don’t think most people realize how many people were killed outside the death camps. The videos and first-hand accounts of Allied soldiers at the time of liberation are appalling, but still important to see.
The rise of Hitler and the Nazis was the catalyst for the war and the Holocaust, but there was an underlying current of anti-Semitism that allowed the Nazis blame Germany’s problems on Jews and Communists. Somehow Hitler was able to conflate the two groups into a single menace, and the people bought the rhetoric. Once the Nazis were in power, they started taking away the civil liberties of the Jews, and the German people were mostly okay with it. However once the war began and the Nazis started killing Jews, it was too late for the people to stop the dictatorship from doing so.
Among the visitors in the museum were several groups of middle school kids. We had seen school groups at the other museums and thought they would be disruptive and inattentive, but they were almost entirely respectful and behaved appropriately. I think they sensed the serious nature of the displays and were just as affected as the adult visitors. There was also a Hasidic Jewish family, speaking to each other in Hebrew, taking in the exhibits like everyone else. If it were possible, I wondered how it might feel to have this enormous burden of history placed on my ethnic history. They seemed to be disappointed the the prayer hall was closed, as we were there at the closing of the museum.
If you haven’t visited the museum, I won’t go into specifics about the displays, but the entire museum was very emotional. It really brings home the fact that there were people there, and then there were not, multiplied six million times. As a human race we must do everything possible to prevent something similar from happening again … but are we?
Ethnic cleansing and genocide has been part of the human experience since the beginning of humanity, and it continues to this day. Cambodia in the 1970s, the former Yugoslavian countries and Rwanda in the 1990s, and Myanmar and Syria at the present time. These instances may not compare in scale to the Jewish Holocaust, but the victims are still persecuted, deprived of their rights, forcibly removed from their homes, or murdered. Part of the mission of the Holocaust Museum is to monitor and raise awareness of current examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Their website is here.