My wife and I recently went to Washington, D.C. It was the first time for her and seemed like the first for me. The only memories of my previous visit were a dozen black-and-white photos dated May 1959, when I was 7.
D.C. is a common daily presence in the news, with images of the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court building, and the prominent monuments. We arrived to find a normal city with lots of traffic and crowds of people going to and coming home from work, as well as the numerous museums, neoclassical federal buildings, and occasional motorcade led, for some reason, by 17 motorcycles.
Our most powerful experience there was the hours we spent at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Somehow, it seemed out of place in America’s capital city and the memorials commemorating man’s contribution to America. The U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum does not do that.
The memorial is a superbly designed, curated, and researched museum in a city filled with wonderful museums. It is the most impressive and emotional museum I’ve ever visited. It has no chiseled letters above the entryway or large sign outside. Whether intended or not, the outside of the building is easily passed by — perhaps a statement of how easy it is to ignore evil.
Museums are usually awash with light to enhance the exhibits. Paintings are highlighted with spotlights, usually in large brightly lit rooms. This is a Memorial Museum, though, and it befits the subject that the exhibit area is mostly dark, with one notable exception. “The Tower of Faces” begins in darkness and is a three-story chimney-like room. Four walls are filled with hundreds of photos illuminating the lives of an estimated 3,500 individuals in the Lithuanian town of Eisiskes.
Along with an estimated 1,000 other Jews from surrounding villages, they were slaughtered by Germans during the High Holy Days in 1941. The tower rises with hundreds of photographs from the dim light to daylight as a personal statement that we remember these individuals and their descendants who were stolen from the world. Perhaps the passage of darkness into light paved with elegantly simple photographs is to acknowledge hope. Even with this monstrous act, people survived. Following from photo to photo, we can identify in some small way with the pictures that illuminate these people’s lives. They are tokens of their past and reminder of the future that was denied to 4,500 men, women, and children. The community that these people built over generations and the children who would continue the work was ended by people who cloaked their acts of evil with dark ideals.
Another powerful exhibit is of thousands of shoes confiscated at the death camps, making the numbers real, the lives palpable with a commonplace item we all share. Evil unchained was not sated with ended lives. Murder was not enough. Stripping men, women, and children of clothes, jewelry, tooth fillings, and suitcases of memories was not sufficient. Each confiscation was a torn layer of humanity until bare feet, themselves, became inanimate. It is almost impossible to look at each one as you are drawn to one nearby and then another and another and another. After a while, you can almost see each person’s life rise from their feet. Thousands of lives leaving only their soles.
The message of the memorial is presented superbly. Every person visiting D.C. especially children should take slow steps through the magnificent work done by hundreds of people. We should reflect on what evil’s work looks like. We live in a world where many of us have lived our lives never having experienced evil and may even believe that benevolence is a more common trait in man. From the darkness of the hallways, the Memorial Museum shines a blazing light on how evil affected the lives of marginalized people, predominantly Jews.
A key lesson should be how common evil is in the history of man. I’ll be carrying the horror, pain, and evil memorialized by a thousand empty shoes, the photographs of townspeople rising to heaven and especially the all-too-brief conversation with Mrs. Bella Mischkinsky. Her smile and welcome was the most poignant presentation at the Memorial Museum. What an amazing statement that Survivors have volunteered to be a critical part of the memorial. May they be with us for many years, G-d willing. The lives they built and their descendants are a blessing for all of us.
The Memorial Museum and the Survivors have a humbling lesson of the hubris that we all carry when we see our lives as the epicenter of the universe. May we never forget that whatever good we think we are doing, as humans, we also carry the seed of evil.
This magnificent creation is truly a Memorial Museum. It is designed to educate about genocide broadly through its archetype: the Nazis’ actions to inflict their ideals on the world. It is a stark reminder that anytime the slaughter of humans is done in the name of purification, we must remember and call it out as evil — whether in China, Russia, Cambodia, Turkey, or Germany.
I look forward to visiting many of the 68 holocaust museums and memorials in 28 states, including Rhode Island’s Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center on Elmgrove and Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial on the Riverwalk, and someday Yad Vashem in Israel. But one of the lessons from my visit to Washington D.C. is that America is unique in history. We are the only country founded on the recognition of man’s higher ideals, while acknowledging our baser inclinations. America’s ideal is no better expressed than in the foundational motto E pluribus unum: out of many, one. The memorials to Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington, the heartfelt Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the striking Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the graves at Arlington National Cemetery are there to honor and remember Americans and the greatness that came not from conquest or slaughtering another people, but from the offer of liberty.
The purpose of memorials in America’s capital city should be to honor people who gave the highest measure to that end. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is focused on European Jews and other victims of the Nazis and stands as a profound contrast to the message of American memorials.