Columns 2003

Holocaust museum creates feeling of horror

I think it was the picture of the kids that got to me and bought it all down to a painfully human level.  My sister has a similar picture in her living room.  It’s a picture of six cousins lined up on Cayuga Street in Philadelphia sometime in the very early fifties.  One cousin, Joe, has struck a bratty pose with a hand behind his head and another on his hip. The rest of us, my cousins Marina, Toni, Joe (a very common name in our family), my brother Philip and I, all stood obediently in a row smiling at the camera, dressed in our Sunday best.

So when I stood in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and looked at a picture of another group of kids, obviously all related, standing on grass in another time and place, posing for a picture, I suddenly connected with them in a very primal way. They were just kids posing for a picture for their parents – a picture they would never survive to enjoy; a picture they would never look at with nostalgia because they did not have enough time left in the world. They were all killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

I stood there with tears streaming down my face while clutching a piece of paper with Ita Grynbaum’s bio on it.  Each visitor to the museum picks one up. Each paper represents a victim of the Holocaust.  Ita died at 17 in a concentration camp.

I was already feeling vulnerable because I’d been to the Vietnam Memorial.  I’d never gone before since I wasn’t sure I could face it.  Then, standing there in front of all those names I thought, “This isn’t so bad. I can deal with this.” Right about then I found Paul DuCharm’s name.  He was a friend of mine who died within days of landing in Vietnam.

When I saw his name, when I touched his name, I lost it completely. Didn’t even see it coming.  One minute my finger was tracing his name and thinking that his 57th brithday would have been on Dec. 15, and the next minute I was sobbing. 

I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial and composed myself in the peace and dignity that pervades this space containing the image of a man of great peace and dignity.  Then I walked back to the hotel and with each step my sadness grew.  Everywhere I looked there were barricades.  In a country that long ago rejected royalty and proudly referred to the White House as the people’s house, people are now kept as far in the distance from the seats of power as the peasants of France once were.

In Philadelphia, I went to see the Liberty Bell with my sister and some cousins.  When I was young, we could just walk up to the bell. It was under a stone arch and accessible to the people whose freedom it represented. Now it’s been moved indoors and can only be viewed after passing through security.  As for Independence Hall – barricades now surround it; barricades now keep people from a hall in which the power of the people was first proclaimed.

I understand the reason it has to be this way.  Security requires greater vigilance nowadays.  But that doesn’t make the loss any easier to accept. In fact, on some levels, it seems as though terroists have already won when we, the people, can no longer access our history but must stand across a street behind barricades and stare longingly at it in the distance.

Yet all this paled into annoying background noise after seeing the Holocaust Museum.  By the time I had walked across cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto, passed through a train car like those used to deport Jews to death camps and reached the bin full of shoes and human hair taken from victims before they were gassed, I found myself walking faster and faster. I couldn’t wait to get to the end so that I could leave the horror behind me and emerge into the sunshine of a DC morning.

When you think about it, all war is insanity. But there is an especially evil insanity to a war based on racism. Because the logical end of racism is a Holocaust, and there simply is no logic to that.