By Jack Feldman
Today I had one of the most powerful experiences in my life.
The bleak, metal elevator doors shut and a voice came crackling through the speakers of the little monitor on the ceiling. An American accent told us that some kind of camp had been discovered, that they didn’t know what we were coming up on. Then the doors opened and in bold black letters “The Holocaust” was plastered on the wall in front of us.
This was the beginning of the permanent exhibit of the United States holocaust memorial museum and I already felt the powerful message it was trying to get across, that it was major, it is undeniable, and many of our fellow humans were killed and dehumanized needlessly. The museum lead me to many moments of reflection but there were, of course, certain scenes and images that broke me down.
The fourth level (which was the beginning) of the exhibit showed the American perspective and how the US found these concentration camps. This was directly followed by an overview of the rise of Hitler and the beginning of the terror in Nazi Germany. This level was very politically focused and was building to the events of the holocaust, I was able to draw connections to other world examples of this type of fascist rise to power. It was interesting to see this rise of authoritarianism and compare it to current events around the world or even here in America.
What truly blind-sided me was the next level, “the final solution“. Immediately the gravity of these words was felt as I walked into the third level. I turned to my right and there was a train car, sitting in front of me, very real. I had to take a moment before I actually walked into the car where Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled were loaded on and shipped away to certain death like animals. Standing in that empty train car I felt a deep pain that I had not felt before. I have always empathized and felt for those who went through the holocaust but it was never in front of me, never shown to me in such a real way. I was standing there in the wake of unimaginable fear and pain and I couldn’t help but get away as fast as I could. Unfortunately, the holocaust did not end with train cars, and neither did the exhibit.
“Arbeit Macht Frei”, the gate to the camp was sitting before me and as I passed further into the exhibit I placed myself in the position of those who walked through that gate. I could only imagine what this statement did to people who just needed a little hope. Psychologically, the statement “work makes you free” must have destroyed people. Knowing that you could be free if you work hard enough but also knowing that you never would be given the chance of freedom is an internal struggle that many can not stand and it is amazing what these people endured.
Finally, the most impactful moment for me was near the end. Earlier in the exhibit, there was the story of a “shtetl” or community of Jews that was in Lithuania named Ejszyszki,
and it had been around for over 900 years. There were hundreds of photos of the people who made up this community just capturing the little, and big, moments in their lives like any of us would. These photos stretched all four levels, ceiling to floor, and when I got to the bottom where the last memories hung, a small paragraph or two explained this little town’s fate.
The shtetl had been eradicated, all 900 years of its history was erased. The deep roots that formed this community ceased to exist almost instantly and it was truly for no justifiable reason at all.
I was moved, I was mortified, and I was changed by this experience. We must always remember what happened to these people and never let it happen again, to anyone.
(Featured photo credit: Harrison Yu)