When you make plans to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington you need to prepare yourself to what you know you’ll see inside.
This is a powerful museum with powerful images. If you’ve never read anything about the Holocaust you’ve got to know that inside are the worst horrors of mankind. If you don’t leave asking yourself why and how did this happen, perhaps you’ll need to go through it again.
This was my second visit.
My first one was about eight years ago. But I never forgot the faces of the people I saw hanging on the walls, in pictures and on videos. I couldn’t help but think had I been born in a different decade and continent, it could have been me and my family.
The Holocaust described in one of the brochures at the museum, was “the state sponsored systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.” It was obvious the primary victims were the six million Jews who perished on the streets, in their homes, but mostly in the inhumane concentration camps. It was however more than just Jews. The Nazis also targeted gypsies, people with disabilities, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, political dissidents and Poles.
The museum has multiple floors and each one tells a different story. The 4th floor is called The Nazi Assault (1933-1939). It chronicles events in Germany including Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of World War II. The 3rd floor is called The Final Solution (1940-1945). It examines the wartime evolution of Nazi policy toward Jews, from their persecution to separation in ghettos to the ultimate annihilation.
The 2nd floor is The Last Chapter. This is a permanent exhibition. Here we are confronted with the possibilities of responding to the Holocaust in the face of mass indifference. It also looks at the non-Jews who risked death to save Jews and also others who joined the underground war against Germany. You’ll also learn about what happened post war as many of the survivors try to rebuild their lives in Israel, Europe and the United States. This floor is also where you’ll find the Hall of Remembrance. You can light a candle in memory of the people who died. The 1st floor introduces the history of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a young boy growing up in Germany. The boy is Daniel, though he isn’t an actual person, we see how a young man lived and survived in this hostile world. There is also a shop and café on this level.
The designer of the museum, James Ingo Freed, wanted to create a space where visitors could reflect on their own feelings and perhaps even their personal experiences. From my own personal experience walking through the museum I did indeed find myself asking questions, to no one but me actually. Questions like, didn’t anyone in the outside world know what was going on here and how could all those people be so evil? And how long would the camps be operating if the allies didn’t eventually liberate them in 1945?
The museum is open 363 days a year (closed Christmas and Yom Kippur). The hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It’s located on Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW, which is really 14th Street. There is no charge but tickets are timed. This time of year the museum will be very busy and to me that’s a good thing. I saw people of all ages and races on tour. No one could ever tell them the Holocaust never happened. I did see tears on the cheeks of a few.
Admittedly there are so many museums and attractions in Washington it’s hard to know where to begin and what to see during your limited time in the city. I would certainly recommend you make the U.S. Holocaust Museum a must stop. I am drawn to the words of a visitor as it appears in one of the brochures, “this can never be allowed to happen again.” For more information check out the website or call 202-488-0400. Photography is not allowed.
One more thought on another museum located just across the National Mall. I have to mention it because of the Baltimore connection. It is one of the Smithsonian’s buildings, the National Museum of American History. Yes, inside is Dorothy’s red slippers and Thomas Jefferson’s desk, but on the main floor is the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The very same historic flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill and staff that inspired Key to write our “Star Spangled Banner.” It is quite an awe inspiring site.
Eddie Applefeld is a Baltimore native and a graduate of Towson University. He has been in the broadcasting profession for over 30 years. Currently he is the Promotions Director of WCBM radio. Before that, he was part of the Rouse & Company show on WQSR, host of a cable TV show called Dining Out and adjunct instructor at Towson.