This first published April 5, 2007 in the Henderson Home News, a Community Newspapers of Nevada publication. It is one of several previously published columns that will be posted in the coming weeks.
After many years of going to Washington, D.C., I had never taken the time to visit any of the many national museums until last month, when my wife joined me on one of my trips.
We had visited several museums, but none had the impact of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Growing up in a family that had considerable connections to Israel and the Jewish
community through our father, I was certainly aware of the horrific human suffering and genocide of Jewish people in eastern Europe under the persecution of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
All the books I've read and the movies I've watched didn't prepare me for the emotional, physical and intellectual exercise I was about to experience.
The visit to the memorial had been planned for months with Nancy Wesoff, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Clark County, where I serve on the board.
Upon entering the memorial Nancy said we should check our coats. This seemed odd at first, because we had carried our coats at other museums.
Nancy then escorted us to counter filled with small books labeled “IDENTIFICATION CARD.” Before I knew what we were doing, she picked up one of the books from the left side of the counter and said, “Please let mine be a survivor.” I then realized we were each picking up a biography of a victim of the Holocaust. As I picked one from the right side of the counter, I quietly prayed for a survivor too.
Nancy flipped to the last page and sighed with relief as I read the following from the book I picked up.
“This card tells the story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust.
“Name: Chaim Frenkiel
“Date of Birth: November 2, 1927
“Place of Birth: Gabin, Poland
“Chaim was the third of seven boys born to a religious Jewish parents. They lived in a town near Warsaw called Gabin, where Chaim’s father worked as a cap maker.
“Gabin had one of Poland’s oldest synagogues, built of wood in 1710. Like most of Gabin’s Jews, Chaim’s family lived close to the synagogue. The family of nine occupied a one-room apartment on the top floor of a three-story building.
“1933-39: In September 1939, two months before I was 12, Germany invaded Poland. In Gabin 10 people were shot in the street; doctors and teachers were taken away. A neighbor who had persistently spoken against Germany was arrested. A few weeks later, the family received a box of ashes — his remains. Then the Germans started terrorizing Jews; they doused the synagogue and nearby homes with gasoline and set them on fire.
“1940-45: When I was 14, I was taken to several forced-labor camps with my brothers Shmuel and Jakob. Food was scarce, so we’d ‘organize’ food when possible. When working outside the camps, we’d beg at homes, or search for scraps in the garbage.
“Shmuel slipped under the camp fence at night to pick cabbage from the fields. Once, five boys were hung for ‘organizing’ food, but it didn't stop us.
“Jakob and I wished for one thing: to live through the war, get a loaf of bread, sit at a table and eat till we were full.
“In 1943 Chaim was transferred to Auschwitz, where he remained for 17 months. After a forced march to Germany, he was liberated in April 1945. He emigrated to the United States in 1949.”
I sighed my own sense of relief to learn I had a picked a survivor, too. Yet this was the tip of the iceberg for what would be a 5 1/2-hour journey.
With our tickets in hand, we waited for the elevator to take us up to the fourth floor and home of “The Holocaust, Nazi Assault 1933-39.” This represents the beginning of the tour and gives a complete history of Hitler’s rise to power and the Nazi Party. From there our senses were challenged by so much information, and emotions tapped by images that were indescribably cruel.
Because the tour starts on the fourth floor, we wended our way down floor by floor. At each permanent exhibit, our bodies were drained by the ghosts of innocence crying out in our heads, begging not to be forgotten, gripping our souls. Held by the power of knowing the truth of such inhumanity, we found viewing the act of genocide in film and photography haunting. This is not a Friday night at the movies designed to titillate your inner fear, but rather the raw truth of a savage movement bent on not just killing off an entire race but also ethnic cleansing of Gypsies, gays and the disabled — recorded forever.
I stepped back for a moment to rest and take in the deafening silence muffled by the shuffling feet of visitors moving in trance like cadence, pausing only to take a second look at what seemed too gruesome to be real.
While I can only describe to you a fraction of what my journey was like, the images of the ghettos, murders, the shoes and, the most haunting of all, the faces of death that flash in the mind’s eye don’t go away.
Finally, we reached the end and entered the Hall of Remembrance, a quiet place for visitors to gather their senses. Whether it was designed for that purpose or not, it certainly worked for me. My head was still spinning in sensory overload as we gathered up our coats and headed for the doors. We exited into the crisp air of our nation’s capital. The three of us looked at each other in silence, and I wondered if they felt less innocent, as I did.
There is a reason why the tour starts on the fourth floor and ends on the ground floor. I know that I would not have been able carry the weight of 6 million Jews and millions of others on my heart from the ground floor to the fourth floor.
Tim O’Callaghan, co-publisher of the News, can be reached at 990-2656 or firstname.lastname@example.org.