When I was in high school, I went to a leadership conference in Washington, D.C. my sophomore year. The experience was truly incredible but looking back on everything there is an experience that sticks out among the rest. When my father and I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
While at the conference, some of my new friends and I had talked about the museum. They told me that the museum was unlike anything that they have ever experienced before. That there was a room full of shoes, and something as simple as that had hit them like a ton of bricks. I had empathized, the way that people do when they hear about a tragedy or think about a past one. I had thought that I had understood. But I hadn’t.
There were three floors to the museum and when you enter you can pick a card. On the card is the picture of a victim of the Holocaust. You find out their name, where they lived and if they had lived or died.
It had reminded me of the movie Freedom Writers. I was excited. I know that that’s a strange reaction to a place so representative of a great tragedy in history but I was. I wanted to know more, to really understand and I felt like I would get that from my visit.
We took the elevator to the top floor and began looking around. In all honesty, I don’t think that I can recall exactly what I saw on that floor. My experience left me with a few moments that have stayed with me in the years since my visit. But before I tell you those, I want you to know that my dad and I spent three hours in that museum. I think that we were probably on each floor for about an hour. And at the end of our visit, I’m not sure that we saw everything there was to offer.
I remember three things so vividly it’s like I am standing back in that museum again. I had expected to see the room of shoes since my friends had mentioned it, but I didn’t really. When I walked down that hallway, there a set of railings on either side of me with piles of shoes behind them, it was difficult to not take notice.
There is a poem right above written in English on one side and Hebrew on the other:
We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are the shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the hellfire
– Moshe Szulsztein
Something about seeing the piles and reading that poem it made you think. It hits you. Further into the museum what I saw next was like a punch in the gut.
In the middle of the room, with the floor cut out with a space probably at least ten feet high was a cart. One of the same train carts that people had been taken to the camps in. Visitors had to walk through the cart, seen the bare and cold metallic inside and when you walked out, if you looked into the pit, there were scattered pieces of luggage. I don’t know what it was exactly about it but something about it moved me. As unbelievable as it sounds it changes you, at least a part of you. And I couldn’t help but feel that change begin as I walked slightly dazed away from the cart. And the third manifestation that has stayed with me was this clay model of the people.
The people at the camps, as they got off the buses, as they left their belongings behind, as they were separated, as they were led to a small room, as they were forced to strip down, as they were sent to the gas chambers. Dozens upon dozens and dozens of people led to their deaths: men, women and children. And for what? Because they were different? Because Hitler convinced his army that the people that he chose, that were unlike him, didn’t deserve their lives? What gives someone the authority to decide something like that?
My visit to the museum, just like other aspects of my trip, changed me. It wasn’t an abrupt shift but an evolving change that is always expanding. And that visit, those three hours, upset me. But what upset me more is what I see today. So many lives were taken and destroyed by these camps, by the war, by the man, and yet the world hasn’t learned. There is still racism, homophobia, sexism, religious differences that end in bloodshed, violence; there is still genocide. I look at places like the Congo where tragedies like these are still active and the world drags its feet in their interference and in the meantime, more children become monsters, more women are irrevocably violated and people murdered.
And the worst part is the ignorance of it all. The information may not be in the paper everyday or on every night’s late night news but it is out there. There are articles upon articles of the genocides, wars, human rights violations and more going on around the world. There are advocates writing these articles, making speeches, mobilizing rallies, writing memoirs, volunteers giving their time and yet so many people are in the dark. The information is out there, there is a wealth of knowledge available to the world, to us. The literature is waiting to be read and still there is hesitation. How can we build a better future, how can we expect the world to heal itself if we only ever maintain the role of bystander? How can the world ever evolve if we never learn from our mistakes?