I really don’t know what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust. Perhaps a pious mother with eyes and hair of the same shade of brown waved her soft hands over the Shabbat candles, or maybe, a small boy enjoyed a meal of chicken and a glass of milk. For many years, unknowns persisted, and unfortunately, by the time the unknown was known, it was much too late for not only the 6 million Jews that perished in the Holocaust, but also the millions of others that pushed through each year of history to create today, July 28th, 2013.
I entered the National Holocaust Museum having been there once before, as had many of my peers. When I stepped off the elevator and into the start of the museum, I grabbed a pen and my make-shift paper that was actually the post card handed to me as I stepped through security. I had to write down something; I mean, here I am writing this journal and I can’t write about nothing, so I began to write down the most obvious text in the museum: the panel headers. Throughout the museum, this was the list I gathered: The Take Over of Power in 1933, The Terror Begins, Boycott, The Nuremberg Laws, The Burning of Books, Nazi Propaganda, The Science of Race, Technology and Persecution, From Citizens to Outcasts, Jewish Responses, Expansion without War, No Help, No Haven 1938, Antisemitism, “Night of Broken Glass,” Nazi Society, Police State, Search for Refuge, Unwanted Everywhere, The War Begins, To Safety, An Exodus of Culture, Terror Against the Poles, Murder of the Handicapped, World War: German Conquests, The Warsaw Ghetto, The Lodz Ghetto, Work, The Kovno Ghetto, Defiance, Four hundreds Ghettos, Invasion of the Soviet Union, Mobile Killing Squads, Holocaust in Romania, Babi Yar, Held for Ranson, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Passover 1943, Deportations, On the Train, Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die, Prisoners of the Camps, “Arbeit Machy Frei,” The Concentration Camp Universe, Slave Labor, 1. Undressing, 2. Gassing, 3. Cremation, “Medical Experiments,” Killing Experiments, Why Auschwitz Was Not Bombed, Tattoos, Majclanek Table, Destroying the Evidence of Mass Murder, The End of a Shletl, World War: The German Collapse, Saving the Danish Jews, The Courage to Rescue, Rescuers, Liberation Encounter, Liberation: Aftermath, Children, Bystanders, Pogroms, Displaced Persons, Exodus, A New World.
When I read over this list, my mind walked where my feet had this morning. My mind clearly divides this list into three categories: contextual progression, hell, and result. Unlike any museum I’ve visited, each floor of the Holocaust Museum places panels that belong to each of the three categories directly next to each other. The list encompasses a panel of hell beside a panel of explanatory context, as well as all other permutations of the three categories, and that is why the headers have the capacity to tell a story when separated from each other merely by a comma in the list. As I wrote this list out, I was brought back to my journey through the museum this morning. I cannot tell of others’ experiences, but what I can tell of mine all resides in the headers above.
The header entitled “Deportations” was the last header I read prior to the first genuine emotion I experienced in the museum. While this may sound horrific because this is the place that the museum marks as the “half way point,” and by then, I “should” have felt something, but I am being honest. Studying tragedies such as the Holocaust often makes me think I should be feeling something, even when I don’t. Luckily, I am not the only one who fights this battle, as my friends and I agreed on this over a Mcflurry. So I continued past the header and followed the path down the ramp and through the real train car used to transport Jews during the Holocaust. I was unable to be in there; I nearly ran down the path that lined the car. The first header I saw upon exiting read: “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die.” I experienced honest emotion in what I often feel is a world of dishonest tears, laughs, and screams. To feel something so purely and rawly provided me with an the experience I could only hope for in a museum of that nature. The graphic image or rusted train car far exceeds my personal tears. It’s not about me. It’s not about us. It’s about how the individual’s lives that were lost allowed for my existence. I cry because I am thankful, yet disgusted that my gratitude had to have been created by ancestral tragedies. Tears come from somewhere beyond tear ducts and heartache. Running through the train car forced me to question where my emotions were coming from instead of blindly accepting emotions for the sake of acceptance and social and cultural normality.
The panel headers entitled “The Courage to Rescue” and “Resistance,” as well as the wall of rescuers were on white panels, but every other panel was black. They were bright, light, and distinct. These three panels were rebels and questioners of the norm, just as the individuals mentioned on these panels were. The special people on these white panels rescued, resisted, and aided, and for that, they were different. Those individuals refused to accept being printed on a black panel, but rather insisted on starting a white panel. Although the white panels were far and few between, they were bright enough to cast a shadow on the black panels.
I exited the museum and entered the hall of remembrance. As soon as I entered, my nose was bombarded with the scent of smoke. During the Holocaust, the clouds of smoke that towered over concentration camps corresponded with mass murder in the form of cremation, but the smell of smoke spoke a different language to my nose. It symbolized the gravity of remembrance and the importance of gratitude. I lit a candle residing in the right side of the circle and walked past the names of each concentration camp, but what lay ahead served the purpose of my emotions more fully than ever before.
The smell of smoke drifted as I walked into an exhibit on the current situation in Darfur. It was here that my tears felt justified. I felt like the sorrow of my people’s history was at last being told to spark gratitude and action. Never again can humanity have poorer vision than the stabbed Cyclops, and the Holocaust Museum is ensuring just that. I can only hope that maybe history can break it’s cyclical pattern and finally begin to learn.
For a bit of a rest, we headed towards the Air and Space Museum where we enjoyed a healthy and special meal and McDonalds. We filled up on fries and milkshakes; one could only hope that none of us were planning to board the spaceship simulators. My friends and I reflected on our experiences from the morning, and eventually set off to explore the museum. We took quizzes and played with the interactive aspects of each exhibit, and arguably, we had more fun than most the kids there. It was refreshing to find such joy in activities geared towards a 10 and under audience, and after playing with bouncy balls and trying on pilot’s jackets we were on our way to my favorite museum in D.C.: the Newseum.
I visited the Newseum for the first time on my 8th grade D.C. trip, and fell in love. The Newseum chronicles the history of journalism, and explores historical events through all forms of journalism. We explored an exhibit on 9/11, JFK, and a gallery of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. In 8th grade, I knew I was a writer. I guess that is up to you, my readers, to determine, but I have always loved words. Despite the confidence I possessed in my passion, I had yet to determine the medium in which I enjoyed communicating my thoughts through. It was after arriving in high school and joining my school’s newspaper that I finally arrived at the ultimate academic, political, technical, creative, and powerful outlet: journalism. The Newseum truly represents the inherent significance of journalism throughout history, and it’s growing significance as technology and media soar to unseen highs. Journalism reports stories, but it also writes history. Each journalist tells the stories of our people, and journalism captures the history of those people, and I couldn’t be more excited to continue to write the world’s stories and the future’s history.
Our time is coming to an end very quickly on Etgar 36, and no longer can any of us turn a blind eye to our country, nor to our world. We know what many teenagers don’t, and of course, with great knowledge comes great responsibility. I hope that our knowledge can prevent the need for architectural blue prints of another memorial, or the printing of a headliner we wouldn’t wish upon our worst enemies.