Some thoughts on visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum
One of the highlights of a recent speaking tour in the United States was my first visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I had some doubts in advance whether there was any point in going since I had been to the new exhibition hall at Yad Vashem just a few months ago. Those doubts, however, quickly dissipated. Much to my surprise, I found the visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum to be an even more powerful experience than Yad Vashem.
To my mind, the U.S. museum did a better job of encouraging an individual encounter with the enormity of the Holocaust. The entire permanent exhibit is darkened, leaving one alone with one’s own thoughts, as well as much less aware of the presence of others, than in the brightly lit hall at Yad Vashem. The progression through the U.S. museum is more or less linear, while at Yad Vashem one can find oneself wandering between the rooms in no particular order.
There were no guided tours at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Such tours proliferate at Yad Vashem.
The decision to eschew guides is, in my opinion, a wise one. Guides have their own time schedule to keep, which inevitably conflicts with one’s own inclination to linger in one particular place or another. Unless one knows absolutely nothing about the Holocaust, the guide’s comments are more likely to constitute unwelcome intrusions into one’s own thoughts than a source of illumination.
Given the vastness of the topic, some omissions are inevitable, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem share several. Neither mentions that Hitler, yimach shmo, sought to exterminate not only the Jewish people but the Torah. I.A. Eckhardt, High Commander of the German Occupation Forces in Poland issued a directive on November 23, 1940 warning that no Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) must be allowed to escape because they constitute the majority of rabbis and “Talmud learners.” He warned, prophetically, that they could bring about the spiritual regeneration of world Jewry, even American Jewry.
Similarly, neither museum describes the heroic rescue efforts by Orthodox Jews in Europe, such as Rabbi Michoel Ber Weismandl (who is pictured at Yad Vashem), Recha and Isaac Sternbuch, Yaakov Griffel, and George Mantello. (The bookshop of the U.S. Holocaust Museum did not contain a single Holocaust title published by an Orthodox house, something that should be brought to the attention of the administration.) But in an American museum, somehow these omissions strike one as less likely to be deliberate, and therefore engender less disappointment.
Both museums emphasized the Nazis’ efforts to degrade and dehumanize their victims. The most searing testimony to their success I recall from Yad Vashem was that of a survivor who related how as a 15-year-old inmate he stole another prisoner’s cap in the middle of the night (after his own had been similarly stolen), even though he knew that the Jew from whom he stole the cap would be summarily executed at the next morning’s roll call.
In the U.S. Holocaust Museum there is a room called Voices of Auschwitz in which survivors describe their experiences in Auschwitz, as one sits and absorbs the interwoven testimonies. Neither museum, however, highlights adequately the many instances of spiritual heroism in the camps.
I personally find the survivors testimony to be the most powerful aspect of any Holocaust museum. The final stories at the U.S. Holocaust Museum left me unexpectedly sobbing aloud, and the museum has 4,500 interviews with survivors available for viewing.
The centerpiece of the U.S. Holocaust Museum is the three-floor high Tower of Faces, comprised of 1,500 photographs of the Jews of the Lithuanian town of Eishyshok donated by Professor Yaffa Eliach. Jews lived in Eishyshok for nearly 900 years. Only 29 of the town’s 3,500 Jews survived the combined Nazi/Lithuanian onslaught. These photographs provide powerful testimony of the richness of Jewish life snuffed out by the Nazis.
IRONICALLY, one unexpected consequence of my visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum was to stir my American patriotism. Though funding of the building came largely from the American Jewish community, the United States government contributed the prime real estate on which the museum stands and bears the operational costs of running the museum. (There is no admission charge.) I was moved by the frankness with which an American national museum confronted America’s dismal record in accepting Jewish refugees.
Even more moving to me was the awe on the faces of visitors – the large majority of whom were not Jewish. People almost invariably said, “Excuse me,” if they momentarily blocked one’s viewing of the exhibits, as if they had interrupted one at prayer.
I saw many young people taking notes. And I did not hear a single word that detracted from the solemnity of the place. There was no parallel to my experience going through Yad Vashem on Tisha B’Av years back with a group of American Jewish teenagers busy discussing the previous night’s social activities.
At one of the final exhibits, consisting of film excerpts from the Nuremburg trials, a young Christian woman kept handing an earphone at each stop and telling me, “Here, this one works,” obviously overcome by a need to do something tangible for someone Jewish.
“THOSE WHO FORGET THE PAST are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana famously remarked. And on that basis too, the U.S. Holocaust Museum was not without its contemporary lessons. Visitors are informed at least twice how German President Paul Von Hindenburg was advised, prior to appointing Hitler Chancellor, that Hitler would moderate his positions once in power and could be controlled.
The refusal to take seriously those who lay out their plans in black and white applies to Hamas today no less than to Hitler. And the effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda apparatus under Josef Goebbels, a subject treated at length in the museum, serves as a warning of what we can expect from a Hamas-controlled educational system.
I once heard Rabbi Moshe Eisemann explain why he resisted going to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. To visit such a museum, and then return to such mundane pursuits as drinking a cup of coffee, he felt, would be to trivialize what one had seen. His point is a powerful one.
But such visits can also be used to force us to wrestle with a world of hester panim, and out of that wrestling hopefully emerge with a deeper and truer faith in He Who has preserved us in the face of all the Amaleks, Hamans, and Hitlers.
Originally published in Mishpacha, March 8, 2006