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
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