Today, January 27, is Holocaust memorial Day. An appropriate day to re-post this bit about my visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. a few years ago. Let’s read and remember and understand that by the time the bad guys (of any stripe) start the expulsions, legalize the executions, and dig the mass graves, it’s too late to fix the problem through legislative means. We believe ourselves to be better than that. Let’s not allow it to get to that point.
I was all right until I saw the shoe room.
My wife and I spent the weekend in Washington, D.C. She had business to take care of, I had research to do at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. We had plans to leave Monday afternoon so Monday morning we decided to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum. We’re not religious Jews, neither of our families dealt much with the Holocaust directly but we figured for a day, we could afford to put our noses up to the window of history and embrace the horror.
I’m not going to describe the whole thing (I mean, hey, why ruin the ending, right? /sarcasm) but the Power of Nazi Propaganda exhibit was an awesome display of just how to get ordinary people to consistently behave like madmen. That was our first stop, it took about an hour to go through the whole thing.
We had to wait a while for the permanent exhibit: a grand tour of the most horrific years in twentieth century history. We joked as we got on line, because, well, you sort of have to. Mel Brooks was absolutely right: you have to laugh or you never stop crying.
The museum was packed: I’m told it generally is. Parents bring their kids, grandparents bring their kids. There’s a waiting area near the door and the children, especially the young ones act like themselves. They run, they jump around, they hang on the furniture and get scolded by attentive parents. I must have heard ten different languages and seen folks of every color and creed walk by while we waited for the permanent exhibit to open up, which was strangely comforting. It’s one thing to be told that WE MUST NEVER FORGET and another thing entirely to see families with no roots in European Jewry whatsoever making an effort to live up to that advice.
All that stops when they go into the elevator and go up to the fourth floor. Up there it’s nothing but hushed whispers and wide eyes.
The first thing you hear is a voice over a speaker in the elevator, ostensibly a bewildered American GI, saying “We’ve found something here and we’re not sure what it is, exactly. Some kind of prison. There are people wandering around, starving, dying.” The doors open and you’re face to face with a wall-sized photo of those same American GIs standing over a mass grave filled with burnt, mangled corpses, obviously at a loss for understanding.
There are three floors of that sort of thing placed in chronological order. The tour is self-guided, so you proceed ar your own pace. The fourth floor deals with the rise of the Nazis to real power in 1933, and then consolidating that power at the expense of those they considered inferiors. The third floor shows the war itself and the American reaction. The second floor shows the details of the Final Solution and the post war years.
There was little on display that I hadn’t encountered before. I was used to it. My father, my brother, and I were all World War II buffs. I had a grand-uncle who parachuted into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne. And we were Jewish, so we had to learn all this other stuff on top of it. Names of concentration camps. The Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto uprising. The gas chambers, the crematoria, the rise of Zionism to a fever pitch after the war ended. The fact that the American government had other things on its mind even as the newspapers screamed about what was going on in Europe. Cantor Bydner, who taught me my Bar Mitzvah haftorah, was a Holocaust survivor. Those of us who didn’t have a survivor in their family, knew friends who had. It was part of our lives. Walking through the displays caused a lot of stress, but no surprises.
In a grotesque way, all this was old hat: Jewish American kids in the 1970s learned about those events the way we learned about English grammar and chemistry: I before E except after C. Water is H2O. The Germans wiped out six million of us, and the crazy Arabs would finish the job in a minute if they could, so Israel is the center of the world. Got that? Good. Let’s eat. The possibility that it wasn’t that simple never occurred to us.
On the second floor as you walk through a glass corridor, several panes etched with the names of scores of towns that were wiped out, you enter a darkened room that is filled with shoes.
That’s the display: Shoes. Old shoes. New shoes. Worn shoes. Badly repaired shoes. Some were withered with use. Some were scuffed from extensive use. Black leather shoes. Brown cloth shoes. Men’s shoes. Women’s shoes. Wide shoes. Narrow shoes.
Hundreds of them. Arranged in a heap ten or twelve inches deep covering the two hundred square foot floor except for a narrow path that you walk through to go the next room.
Obviously, there are other artifacts on display, both out in the open and behind plexiglass. Some are necessarily more personal than others: Striped pajamas from the camps. Eating utensils. Bowls, plates, cutlery. Doors. Keys. A massive black iron casting of the front gate of Auschwitz (the original is in Poland). Scale models of the Killing Centers* including a massive crowd of two-inch tall figurines being herded into gas chambers. A preserved gas chamber door. Empty poison gas canisters. Prisoners’ wooden bunks. Thousands of photographs, several miles of archival film. The shoe room breaks everyone, even if it’s just a little bit.
On reflection, I know why the shoe room works. Shoes are intensely personal items that we use to define ourselves as people. Think about it: is there any item of human manufacture that speaks to civilization and our place in it more than footwear? Even simple ones like sandals, even cut strips of bark wrapped around the foot with vines. Shoes are a mark of western civilization, evidence of progress, a standard of normal life among cities. Our rules of daily routine require them. Going barefoot is permissible to very young children but that’s it. “I cried because I had no shoes …”** The only time we take our shoes off is to sleep. Even when we bury our dead, someone puts a pair of shoes on the deceased before the body is lowered into the grave. We discard shoes only when we’ve destroyed them. Or, in this case, destroyed the people in them.
The problem with exhibits like this one–graphic presentations created by curators and the processional historians they work with to try to illustrate and perhaps explain immense, insane things to otherwise well-informed visitors–is that after a certain point, people tend to turn off. It quickly becomes to much to process. Something like the Holocaust is too big to grasp, even if like me and five million other American Jews, we’ve been steeped in this history most of our lives. Additionally, this is for all intents and purposes, a pretty tame exhibit. The really frightening stuff is living over at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Living beneath that Sword of Damocles is now part of growing up Jewish. We all asked the same question of our teachers in Hebrew School: Why them? Why us? How did something like this ever happen? There were no answers except for the obvious platitudes: “Because they hate us.” “Because they were crazy.” “Because that’s what people who hate do.” The real answer, however, was always the same: the haunted look in our elders’ eyes when they told us these things. That look said: we have no idea. We don’t know why it happened, but then we don’t know why water is H2O, either. It just is. And that terrified them. It didn’t do us kids any good, either.
But anyone can understand a room full of discarded shoes.
This is probably wishful thinking at work but for the first time in my life, I think I have an idea of why Holocaust deniers stick to their stories.*** People who insist that the big event never happened or happened on an infinitely smaller scale aren’t like Bob in Accounting who swears up and down that he paid back that five-spot that he borrowed from you last month when he didn’t–that guy is just being a putz. You don’t loan him money again. Fine.
They also aren’t like pundits, politicians, and corporate excs who insist that there’s no such thing as man-made global warming, or if there is, it’s either not their fault or not as bad as the media says it is. That’t mere greed in action: if it’s real, and they caused it, then they’re responsible for fixing it which would cost them their jobs. Obnoxious but understandable.
People who deny the facts of the Holocaust are coming from a much darker place. It has less to do with hate and more to do with fear. Raw, unbridled, fear of it having happened, because if it’s real, then it really did happen, and if it happened once to the Jews, then it can happen again, to them. That’s a decidedly sane reaction. It’s a good thing to be afraid of for the simple reason that there are always people willing and able to capitalize on fear and hate to gain and maintain power. But instead of dealing with the fear, these folks twist it, turn it into something outside reality, and blame the victims. Perversely ensuring that the next time something like it does happen, they won’t see it. Problem solved!
None of the visitors in my group stayed in the Shoe Room for very long. We glanced around and hurried past. That’s simple self-preservation at work; anyone with a fragment of imagination who lingered in the Shoe Room walked out in tears. There are giant posters placed throughout the museum, ordering visitors to THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN, but compared to the Shoe Room, they fall flat.
The final rooms cover the aftermath years: 1945-1949, covering the gathering of the survivors, the effort to push Great Britain to release control of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. There are flags to denote the countries where sympathizers rescued Jews from the Nazis, and the names of thousands of Jewish resistors. It’s heartening to see, if only because no-one likes to think of their people as the ones who went to their doom without a fight. None of it made up for the Shoe Room. I don’t think anything can.
* “Killing Center” is the museum’s term for it, and that is how it’s used in the explanation placards. I find the phrase accurate but sterile. “Death Camp” is the term I was raised to remember. It’s not technically correct–there were many more forced labor camps than death camps per se– but it’s got a bit more oomph, don’t you think?
** ” . . . until I met a man who had no feet.”
***As opposed to mere anti-semites who are all about the hate.