The steel doors are framed by thick bolts and when they slam shut with a loud thud, everyone in the elevator gasps for air. The passengers fall silent as we ascend. Anticipating something brutal, I plant my feet firmly on the floor; if I brace myself, maybe it will lessen the shock.
Suddenly a back and white image flickers to life on the television monitor above my head. I look up to see stock footage of a World War II solider standing in front of a liberated concentration camp 50 years ago. He gives the warning: what he saw – and what I am about to see, is like nothing I have ever seen in my life.
The elevator doors open on the permanent exhibition of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The display winds its way down – not unlike Dante’s Inferno. I walk through the stories of hell told by those who lived through it.
In the death camps – and on their way to the gas chambers, the victims were forced into isolation from their entire world. It was their last wish that the world know what they went through. A direct verbal account is the only way that the truth – and the accuracy of the terror – can be conveyed.
Nesse Godin, a Holocaust survivor, remembers:
“’Maybe you young girls will survive,’ they told us. ‘Promise us you will make them remember. Don’t let them forget. Zieg der verld (Tell the world)’, they cried.”
Godin was 13 in June 1941 when Germans marched into Lithuania. Soldiers rounded up Jewish men and boys to “clean up war damage.” They were taken from their native town of Siauliai and taken deep into the forest. There they were ordered to strip under gunpoint. Then they were forced to dig their own graves. Finally they were shot. Farmers nearby said that the ground shook from the sound of bullets and falling bodies. The rest of the Jews were herded into a few blocks and that became the Siauliai Ghetto. In 1944, the Ghetto was emptied. Godin survived several labor camps and a forced march. In 1945, she was liberated by the advancing Soviet army. She was 17 years old.
“What kind of criminal was I? I was one of the lucky ones; I survived. So when I look at the people at the museum, I remember the cries of ‘Zieg der verld’ and I see the world,” says Godin, 67, a museum volunteer. We need this museum. It preserves history and it teaches. Being memorialized is not enough. We cannot bring back the dead.”
Before the Holocaust, there were nine million Jews in Continental Europe; within a dozen years, two-thirds of European Jews had perished. You watch the video footage from the television monitors above and stare deeply into the eyes of the Holocaust victims who are captured on the black and white film. All the eyes convey signals of death; even the faintest glimmer of life was quickly shattered by a Nazi’s boot.
I gaze at the display of a Nazi uniform. The brown assaults my eyes, but what sears all my senses are the red armbands with their piercing black swastikas. I picture that uniform from the view of a concentration camp victim who’s lying on the floor being stomped on by those tall, black, powerful boots.
I am just a visitor to the museum and will probably never understand. Not even the most imaginative description of the Holocaust can truly reflect the horror and the carefully planned savagery. No account can re-enact the emotions of the victims – and the survivors. And still, even survivors who emphasize the inability of any narrative to fully portray their suffering, even they want the story to be told.
Ann Shore is the President of the Hidden Child Foundation, an organization within the Anti-Defamation League. Children who hid their Jewish identities to survive the war comprise this 6,000-member organization. Shore was 12 years old in 1942 when the police in Zabno stuck a gun to her and asked her where her father was. She told them she didn’t know. They ran to the basement, where he was hiding, and shot him dead. Shore, her mother, and sister fled to a farming village and hid in a small farm until the end of the war.
“The museum is very meaningful to the Holocaust survivors,” Shore says. “We feel deeply moved by it because it’s our lives they’re showing. But the museum is not for us. We are the story. The museum transcends the story.”
There is a family photo – everyone is smiling; the father seems proud. Their table is adorned by rolls and wines and smiles; a depiction of life before the war. A mother and her young son sit on a hammock together. Two grandmothers are photographed wearing polka-dotted dresses and holding canvas bags. Another pictures reveals twin sisters with matching bows in their hair.
She was four years old when the killing began. “I realized that Jews died a double death,” Eliach says. “The first was the horrible murder by the Nazis and the second was that their memory was being obliterated. I wanted to rescue this one town from oblivion. I was determined that these Jews would not be remembered only as victims. When I stood on the massive grave in Eishishok, I saw it not as skulls and bones but as people begging to be remembered the way they were.”
Eliach’s exhibit in the museum aims to give the murdered people back their faces and their identities. “I want people to go away from the museum and think. Not just about the emotional reaction, but I want them to think about preserving democracy and what happens when democracy fails. I want people to make a commitment to safeguard democracy. I want them to walk out to the streets of Washington with a message, with knowledge, and hopefully, encouraged to think.”
When the museum opened in April 1993, the ones who lived through the horror could finally tell their stories to the world.
“We are the last survivors to tell our story and you are the last ones to hear it,” Shore says. “Just remember that so much more is gained by love than by hate. Because hate can become self destructive.”
The museum’s concerted effort is to educate children. Godin speaks to students in inner city schools in Washington D.C. She tells them:
“You wonderful people, look at each other. Don’t see a religion or a color. See a person. be a little kinder, be a better human being. Treat each other a little better. Learn to tolerate each other and live.”