One Fall, at a teaching conference in Baltimore, a colleague and I skipped out on the teaching seminars and took a train to Washington, DC to visit a museum. We had both seen most of the large museums there already … except for one: the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
For me, the memory of the emotion evoked by a memorial is more the point than the particular details of history. So, here you will read the emotional truth of my time at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Go there yourself, and your memory would likely not be the same, and the truth you find there be a different shape altogether.
As we entered the Museum that day, we were led to a lift, much like a cargo elevator, and were each given a mock passport with an individual’s name and his or her fate. At the top of our ride the elevator doors creaked open, and we were directed out into an area where the exhibits began. Then the door closed. There were no instructions. No greeter. No welcome desk. No lovely display of informative brochures. I looked at the passport I had been given and found the young girl in the photograph died in a concentration camp, of diphtheria.
After a few moments, our eyes grew adjusted to the hushed atmosphere, and it became clear there was a path to follow. There were various objects - photos, newspapers, uniforms, badges, sashes, buttons and ribbons, banners, scrapbooks, diaries, posters, brochures - along the walls, inside glass cases, on either side. A rainbow of triangles revealed the dichotomy of captivity.
There were not many traditional exhibit rooms, mostly a wide walk leading gently downhill, paralleling the chronological escalation of the Holocaust. The structure of the Museum prevented us from bypassing most of the displays. We gazed into case after case, and in most of them we could see our faces reflected in the glass, gazing back.
We avoided the Mengele video display, its screen at the bottom of a concrete pit. We walked through a cattle car, but did not spend any time inside.
We sensed a mounting fear. The losing of one’s freedom and the depersonalization of the elevator. The uncertainty upon exit. Passport shadows of those sharing an unnameable foreboding. A long, slow descent along a predetermined path, never knowing when, where, or how it might end. The tricky geometry of hate. Ever worsening news records and propaganda. The random mercy of avoiding horror – even our own reflections – all joined, a slowly rolling dread.
The experience was seamless.
Then we entered a room full of hollow shoes. They covered the floor, a vast mound. A small bridge was there to carry us to the other side. A dim and shamefully angry smell of old dirt floated, wafting dust, rotting leather, and anxious sweat.
Unexpected guilt overwhelmed me.
My friend strolled ahead, and I saw her on the other side. I felt as if I were not allowed to call out to her, though her name was in my mouth. Everyone else on the bridge disappeared. As I stepped on, I felt certain I was climbing the pile, for the shoes rose so closely under my feet.
I looked again at my friend on the other side, who seemed to be disappearing. I refused to breathe or look at the shoes. I gained, I think, some understanding of why people did nothing to help their friends and neighbors and others who needed help.
Now I have seen this weakness in me, and I no longer hold myself above sympathizers. That quiet, private afternoon, there was nothing I wanted more than my own immediate peace, to avoid the truth, to skip out on the evidence. At my memory’s lowest ring, I recall my small look at death. Crossing the bridge that day was my only means of escape. That is why I walked to the other side, and did not look back.
I am afraid of mounds of stolen shoes.
published 26 February 2011