Remembering in Trying Times

Today's my last day in D.C. And yesterday, I took an hour and a half to go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I picked the USHMM as my personally-mandated cultural endeavor because of an exhibit they were advertising outside their building. On our Monday drive into D.C. I saw a large sign advertising one of their current exhibits, Some Were Neighbors, an exhibit about collaboration and complicity in the Holocaust.

I was barely able to attend; it’s spring break season in D.C., so I grabbed one of their day-of timed tickets to see the permanent exhibit tour, where groups of museum-goers are let in on the half-hour to prevent crowding. With a tour group of middle school kids in matching hoodies in front of me, I took the elevator up to the start of the exhibit path.

The museum was very crowded with (mostly) respectful teenagers shuffling past images of Nazi propaganda, the hall of family photos from a wiped-out shtetl, the walk through a cattle car, allied video of camp liberations, the infamous piles of shoes. Sections focusing on American reactions to the Holocaust are sprinkled throughout the multi-story exhibit, and kids clustered around headphones and TV screens to watch archival footage of American network coverage of the unfolding catastrophe in Europe.

I didn’t linger in the permanent exhibition. I walked through images of liberated survivors hugging soldiers, seeing loved ones assumed dead, stepping onto a ship to take them elsewhere. I was overwhelmed walking through into the Hall of Remembrance, a large room centered on an eternal flame is lined with black walls inscribed with names of camps, killing centers, places of mass murder. Surrounded by strangers, I rushed down the stairs with tears in my eyes, feeling claustrophobic in the clamoring and crowded main hall, with my adrenaline up.

The Some Were Neighbors exhibit was nearly empty.


Chilled by the blasting AC, I lingered on nearly everything on display: Photos of bystanders straining their necks to get a look at their countrymen being herded towards “The East.” Stories of friends who bought stolen Jewish goods at auction, of neighbors blackmailing hidden Jews for cash. Of the cartoonist who created horrifically anti-semitic images for Der Sturmer, and the nurses who participated in the invasive body cavity searches of those about to get in the cattle cars. Of women who reported their neighbors because they were gay, and because she "read in the newspaper that we should not go easy on such individuals."

Needless to say, it was sobering to visit the museum right now, filled with proclamations of “Never Again" alongside images of political fervor of Germany in the 1930s and descriptions of how collaborative technology companies kept the trains running on time. Reminders that the unprecedented Nazi system and its death apparatus worked in no small part due to the activities - and inactivity - of normal people.

One last thing to mention, back at the beginning of my tour. I was one of the few solo museum-goers, here without a tour or a family. But there was one man next to me, seemingly solo.

His shirt read “United States of Deplorables” over an inauguration seal.

And then my iPhone lit up with news that the US had bombed Assad forces in Syria.