Monday, February 23, 2009

Field Trip: Part Two - Remember What You Saw

No cameras were allowed. No food. No drink. We were discouraged from bringing our coats with us, despite the February chill.

The docent in his burgundy jacket brought a clipboard with him, checking our group ticket, our names. He looked us over and lined us up in single file. We shivered in the stiff breeze and wondered what was taking so long. The brick walls that shot steeply up from the entry were somber. Inside, industrial girders and exposed mesh gave the whole place the aura of a prison. Of this building, the architect says, "It must take you in its grip."

We placed our belongings on the security belt and stood nakedly waiting to gather our things.

Upon returning to our group, we huddled together and awaited further instructions. Each of us was given a grey passport with the face, name, and brief story of a real person who was rounded up in the Holocaust. At the end of this passport, we found out whether our person had lived or died. The docent said we were to pretend we were this person as we moved through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial museum. He then herded us toward the elevator and packed us all in there. We could scarcely breathe. I looked at our professor and asked, "Is this our first lesson?" It was. If there had been forty of us, he said they would have shoved us all into the elevator.

At the fourth floor, we started the tour, which was not guided. We were summarily dropped off to wander through on our own, given a time to be back at the bus. The industrial, prison-like nature of the building was more pronounced than in the lobby.

The exhibits began with Germany in the early 30s, before the rise of Hitler, but soon enough, his barking voice could be heard shouting out in glee over his election. He had the adoration of his people, and this only grew as time went on. At one point, before the worst of it began, he claimed, "I am the (Nazi) party, and the party is me!" Indeed.

Around the next corner was a video of the book burnings playing. Though many people in Germany and around the world saw the book burnings as simple sensationalism and propaganda (the books were outlawed for not being in the best interests of Germany), one man noted, "Once we begin burning books, humans will be next."

The faces of two German officers, flush with power and holding clubs, greeted me in a larger-than-life reproduction. One of them held the leash of a muzzled German Shepherd dog whose eyes were wide with aggression. People shrunk back in fear. "The Terror Begins," the sign read. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.

Gradually, the oppressiveness of the place began to grow, as I encountered one exhibit after another which showed the increasing terror the Nazi party was reigning on its own people and then later on its neighbors. Boycotts, then raids, then deportations, relocations to the ghettoes, abuse after abuse after abuse. People who had been productive members of a civilized country were soon destitute and without options. The fear grew.

They told me that I would encounter at least one thing I didn't know before, that I would come across something that shook me to my core. That something was the exhibit which showed the other groups of people who were deemed "dirty" or "unacceptable" by the Nazis: the mentally and physically handicapped, the black people of Germany, the Native Americans, the gypsies, and the homosexuals. (click on those links for online exhibits). Nazi soldiers tracked down gays and lesbians in their "meeting places" and homes and dragged them away to prison camps which were springing up everywhere. Soon those prison camps became labor camps (aka concentration camps). Their humiliation was said to be the worst.

Some were killed immediately -- the elderly and those under the age of 15 or 16. Others were examined and were either "treated" (killed) or sent to the labor camps. See this link for more.

But it was the image of one little girl that I'll never get out of my mind. Maybe four or five years old, she had been stripped naked and was being roughly held up by the neck by a large German nurse. Her face, framed in short dark hair, was twisted in frustration and discomfort. Her right hand reached up to pull the nurse's hand away. Whether she was mentally or physically handicapped, the card didn't say. It did say that she was killed shortly after the picture was taken.

A burning sensation rose in my chest and flushed over my face. My hands trembled as I dropped my gaze to the ground, unable to look at the photo any longer. Had I eaten before the tour, I'm certain I would have had to make a run for it to the nearest ladies room. As it was, I felt I'd never be able to eat again. Her face has stayed with me.

Other exceedingly moving exhibits were the miniature model of the crematorium, the boxcar that you must walk through to move on through the museum (even all these years later, the fear and anxiety seeps from the walls of that boxcar), and the hundreds and hundreds of shoes that were taken from the imprisoned and the dead. One strappy sandal, which was once white, lay tattered amid the heap.

There were other images and other exhibits I could not face. A large square in the middle of the second floor? third floor? shot light upward. People were gathered around the high lip of the box, too tall for children, looking down into this box of light, and I couldn't get in close enough to see what they were looking at, except to see that the light came from a bank of TV monitors. Their faces were grim and silent. No one moved. I later found out that this bank of TV monitors was showing videos of the medical experiments of Josef Mengele (I refuse to call him by the title of doctor, because he should have had the title of monster). I'm glad I couldn't get near the monitors. Of the 3000 twins he experimented on, only 160 survived, and there was so much more he did. There is a special hell just for him, I'm sure, to repay him for the atrocities he visited on innocent people.

By the time I reached the lobby, full of sunlight and open space, I felt I had been through a house of horrors, except that the Frankensteins were real and the dead were actually dead. I searched out some of my classmates and saw the same pale-faced shock that I knew I wore on my own face. We sat together and murmured about what we saw, trying to come back to today, to reality, while hanging onto those images that were forever burned in our brains.

When the bus pulled up outside, we gathered together and rushed across the street, quietly making our way down the aisle and to our seats. Eventually, we pulled out our apples, sandwiches, cookies. Eventually we noticed the sun was shining. Soon we were able to talk to each other again.

But we will never forget what we saw.

Peace - D
=======================
Post Script:

As Cloudia so aptly pointed out in her comment, somehow I wrote this entire post without once using the word "Jew". This wasn't intentional, that is to say I did not consciously leave out the Jewish people, six million of whom were killed in the Holocaust. It wasn't a conscious decision, rather - as I told her - I let the feelings flow onto the page. Those feelings included the surprises I found - that many other types of people in addition to the Jews were killed. My brain seemed to latch onto that. To my Jewish friends, readers, and extended family, please know that I recognize the fact that of some nine million Jews living in Europe at the time the round-ups began, two-thirds of you died. Generations of people were lost to us all.

Peace - D

32 comments:

tysdaddy said...

I would have a difficult time being in a place like that.

Your retelling of your visit is haunting enough . . .

septembermom said...

Your description of that little 5 year girl shakes me through to my core. What hell they all went through.

Recipes for theLife said...

Oh my god!!I dont have words to express what i felt after i read the post.I do believe with you that these people have a special hell for them for all horrible inhuman things they have done

Woman in a Window said...

You said it best here, "except that the Frankensteins were real and the dead were actually dead."

chilling.
chilling -

Coal Miner's Granddaughter said...

I remember walking through the Dachau concentration camp. And as the day wore on, got colder, light faded, we moved closer and closer to the crematorium. And I can remember stepping inside and just having an overwhelming feeling of needing to get the heck out. And then I sobbed.

When we left, the four of us didn't talk for a while. It was stunning.

And every time I hear about some douchbag who denies the Holocaust ever happened? I want to throttle them.

Cloudia said...

Well done post.
One question:
Did you actually complete this entire post without using the word :"Jew" or did I just miss it?

Maggie May said...

That would have been really difficult for me to be there. I can never understand how other humans can act like that to one another.
Humans seem to do this, though quite regularly in war, every race and every generation. Seems like its inbuilt. Makes me shudder.Makes me ashamed to be human sometimes.
We can only counteract it by trying to put ourselves in the other person's shoes.

the walking man said...

Humanity for sure will be looked at as the wasteland in the billions years stretch of time.

Kelly (conversemomma) said...

Posts like this are important. I think we are so desensitized, even to violence on this level. My hubs is Jewish. We have a holocaust survivor come to my school every year. It always shakes me up. But, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I remember sitting there, holding my belly and thinking...they would have taken my child, my child. I had to get up and leave the room. I was shaking. I was literally shaking and sick. It hit home and made me realize that I don't think I truly understood it until then. My husband needs to see the camps. I'm terrified to go, but will to honor his family and all those lost.

Daryl said...

Thank you, Doris, for making others see/think/feel ...

Syd said...

It's a reminder of just what we as "humans" do to our own species. And it's a reminder to not let it happen again--but it still seems to go on in places where dictators are crazy and human life is cheap.

Hilary said...

You did an incredible job of bringing your sense of horror to words. I felt like I was alongside you, hanging on to your sleeve. I can only imagine how you felt being there. And I can't imagine how it was .. when it was.

Mental P Mama said...

I am covered in chills. I don't know if I could withstand that museum, but should make every effort to get there. With my children. Thank you for the vivid tour.

Jay said...

I have read about the Holocaust - and the evil experiments of Mengele - and I'm pretty sure I could not tour that place.

I admire your strength. Although you clearly do not feel strong right now, you are, and this experience will add to your strength. I hope the nightmarish visions will allow you some peace very soon. It must have been a very difficult day.

LORENZO said...

The piles of shoes and standing in the actual railroad car had a big impact on me. It is incredible how the people of Germany followed that peculiar man and his words. My son and I always speak of our visit to the Holocaust Museum.

SandyCarlson said...

Thanks for sharing these details. How disturbing. That image of the little girl will stay with me, too. Wow. I will have to go there someday. This seems to be an exhibit everyone should see and be disturbed by.

david mcmahon said...

Never again.

Never again.

Did you ever read the post I wrote about my schoolboy connection to Anne Frank and how I made my pilgrimage to that spot by an Amsterdam canal?

The Things We Carried said...

This is a horror in our history. The world's story of unpardonable cruelty to human beings...by human beings...

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

oh god...this has me fighting the tears as l shouldnt be online here at work, but its so quiet and l'm now brought down to earth with a bump after several other riotous posts!
Strange. This resonates with me more than ever before. I have learnt soemthing recently that makes me hear, watch, approcah the holocaust quite differently and more personally. I cannot say hwy. It's not my place, but to just reiterate David's comment.

Never again.

Stesha said...

You are much braver than I, my friend. History must be told, the story must told. It just caused so much pain that is still here today.
It pains me when people say there was no Holocaust. How can they ignore the injustice of millions of people. Thanks for sharing.

Hugs and Mocha,
Stesha

Employee No. 3699 said...

First let me wipe the tears away so I can comment.

Thank you for sharing your experience at the museum with us. I would like to visit it one day, though I know as much as I would try to prepare myself for it before hand, it would be impossible.

Big hugs to you, D.

Akelamalu said...

Having visited Auchwitz and Berkenhau last October I know exactly how you feel. :(

The Vengeance said...

You tell of your visit and I feel like I was there with you. This was beautiful, in a sad and haunting way. Surely you've put the ghosts of the holocaust on the hearts of everyone that has paused to read this. We won't forget them either. thankyou.
(found you through David's authorblog, props for post of the day mention)

Jeni said...

My older daughter and I have often talked about wanting to go see the Holocaust Museum. After reading this post, part of me wonders if I would be able to withstand such a "guided tour" or not. Part of me still feels it is a journey daughter Carrie and I should try to make, together, holding each other up along the way. Such atrocities! And these from so-called "civilized" people! How can those who claim the Holocaust never took place make such a claim?
All questions that will never be answered. But in viewing the Museum, perhaps it will keep the memory somehow alive of those millions who perished in those who are brave enough to see the Museum.

J said...

this brought tears to my eyes, yet also made me glad that there is such a powerful museum to remind people of the horrors of the holocaust. and wonderfully written: i feel educated just by reading it.

this almost feels slightly disrespectful to write here, but in reference to an earlier post, i have always enjoyed cleaning kitchens, even as a teenager. strange but true.

RiverPoet said...

Brian - Yes, it was difficult, but so worth it.

September - And I found myself thinking that the ones who died quickly were the lucky ones.

Recipes - I'm glad the post touched you. It is for people like this that I think hell was created.

WinW - Yes, it was exceedingly chilling.

CMGD - Yes, I can't imagine anyone denying that this took place. There is so much evidence to the contrary.

Cloudia - See my email to you and my post script. The Jewish people paid the highest price in the Holocaust, but the other groups surprised me. I had no idea....

Maggie - It was very difficult to be there, but it was so important. If we acknowledge these things, then we are better equipped to help stop it - like the killing in Darfur.

Mark - Indeed. We will someday all be the detritus of this world.

Kelly - Someday I'd like to visit the camps, too. I just think it's so important to acknowledge this part of history, lest we repeat it.

Daryl - The horrors were immeasurable. How could I not post this?

Syd - "...where human life is cheap", as in Darfur, and the dictators are strong...you're absolutely right. This will continue.

Hilary - It was my responsibility to share this. I'm glad you came along with me.

MPM - Thank you for taking the tour with me.

Jay - The nightmarish visions have faded now, but I had to write them down while they were fresh. In my new line of work, I'll see all kinds of things that I'll need to compartmentalize. I'm sure I'll get better at doing that as I go along - without losing my sensitivity and humanity, of course.

Lorenzo - It really was an incredible place, was it not? There were so many things to take in. I'll have to go again someday.

SandyC - Indeed, everyone should see it and be disturbed by it. I was amazed at how sober everyone was as they went further into the museum, even the teenagers stopped their chatting and giggling.

RiverPoet said...

David - Never again, indeed. I would love to read your post about your connection to Anne Frank. I'll search your blog for the reference. Thanks for the POTD mention!

TTWC - That was the hardest part for me to understand -- how people did this to other people. HOW COULD THEY?

FFF - I think the Holocaust touched us all in some way, as it should have.

Stesha - People who say there was no Holocaust are simply ignorant, blind, cold people. They should all be made to go through the museum.

3699 - I really thought I'd be fine when I walked in the door. Our professors told us to expect to be moved by something. They said even after so many personal visits, they each always found something new that disturbed them.

Akela - I can imagine that those places just cry out with the memories and horror.

Vengeance - Thank you for stopping over at my little blog. I'm glad that I put "the ghosts of the Holocaust" into the hearts of my readers. I have achieved what I set out to do.

Jeni - Thanks for visiting me. I hope that you and your daughter will go. Though it is a tough place to visit, it is so important, lest we forget.

J - Thanks for your visit. I really think the museum does a powerful service. You should visit it sometime...

Peace - D

Pouty Lips said...

Your is the kind of writing that I find very gripping. I felt like you were personally telling the story to me. Horrific and I agree with the comment about people who deny this took place are douche bags. Congrats on your well-deserved Post of the Day mention today.

Lavinia said...

I read this the other day but didn't comment. I was horror-struck. What I find most disturbing of all is that this happened within the past hundred years. Within the past 70, actually. We are sooooo not far removed from this level of atrocity. I do hope there is a special place in hell reserved for the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.

Sandy said...

I pray with all my heart that it will never be again.

San said...

Movies, stories, images--anything about the Holocaust stirs up this horrible primal fear in me. I cannot imagine how people endured such unfathomable cruelty. And a deeper part of me wonders, Could I ever be capable of such unfathomable cruelty? Shudder.

What a powerful learning experience for you. One you will never forget no doubt.

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