I had been procrastinating on this visit for, well…years. It was Miss Cookie, my friend of eons and more, who came for a short visit that prompted me to rip off the band-aid so to speak. There was never going to be a good time. There was never going to be a time where my head would be in the “right” place to receive the horror without profound effect on my heart. Of course there wouldn’t be…
Oddly enough, even the weather knew. It was almost bone-chilling cold. The skies above our nation’s capital were a somber gray, not a hint of blue to be seen. In fact, spits of rain threatened to turn into sloppy snowflakes later in the day.
As we waited on the metro platform Miss Cookie posed the question yet again: “Are you sure you want to go there? After all, I’m just here to see you…no need to do any touristy stuff.”
“I lived here for more than fourteen years and never went and now that I am back in the area I cannot put it off any longer,” was my reply. “I don’t know why…I just feel It’s necessary, especially with what just happened.”
Miss Cookie nods in silent understanding. The attack and murder of Jewish worshipers at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh had happened just a few weeks before.
After a small hiccup on our metro journey into downtown we disembarked at The Smithsonian metro. It took a moment to get our bearings before we headed in the direction of our purpose. Bundled cozily enough against the cold it would only be a short walk…eight minutes or so. Our pace was quick though in hindsight I should have slowed to a stroll ….taken my time…but that meant delaying the inevitable. I cannot procrastinate any longer on this. I was not about to turn around no matter how tempting it would be.
And then, there we were. Standing in front on the one museum that I’d avoided for years…
The Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and author of some 57 books, including Night which describes his experience as a prisoner in both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps said:
“Better than one heart be broken a thousand times in the retelling, if it means that a thousand other hearts need not be broken at all.”
This museum, and many others like it…as well as countless books and movies about the Holocaust…all are an integral part in this constant, necessary retelling. The reason is painfully obvious…
“A destruction, an annihilation that only man can provoke, only man can prevent.” ~ Elie Wiesel
And so, our self-guided visit began with a docent whose parents were survivors of the calculated annihilation that would take more than six million souls. She told us her brief story while a group of us queued-up in the elevator that would take us to the fourth floor (in keeping with the chronological timeline, it’s recommended to start at the top floor and work down). Just before getting on the elevator folks were directed to pick up an “identification card” from a large bookshelf containing hundreds upon hundreds of cards. Each card told the story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. My card told the story of Monique, who thankfully survived the Holocaust. She and her parents were among the lucky ones; they emigrated to the U.S. in 1950. I will admit to breathing a heavy sigh of relief that the card I held told of a “happy” ending.
Miss Cookie and I would spend over three hours in the museum. At first, I was peeved that what seemed like hoards of school kids were at the museum. I’ve been to countless museums where groups of school kids behaved less than desirably. In most cases they would be loud, obnoxious and, well….generally rude. But this time I was truly moved by the hush of every young soul that toured the memorial. There were times as we moved from one brutal image to another…or one exhibit on to the next…that you could hear a feather drop. The air was thick with a sobering reverence to be sure.
As we wound our way through each floor my heart, of course, grew heavier and heavier. The exhibit of thousands of pairs of shoes worn by those souls who were exterminated made my stomach turn. Though only a moment, it seemed like hours that I leaned against the wall staring at those shoes. Every fiber in my being struggled to process what was left of the unimaginable horror some seven decades ago in the deliberately staged, and undeniably veritable scene of personal effects just inches away from me…
Shoes. Shoes survived the horror.
There are loonies (yes, absurdly idiotic folks) who firmly believe that the Holocaust did NOT happen. Their minds are firm: There was no coordinated, systematic genocide of more than two thirds of European Jews, or their sympathizers, nor political activists, homosexuals, people of other races, the disabled,or, in effect, anyone whose looks and beliefs were in opposition with the Nazi regime during World War II. They disregard, for example, that entire towns were wiped off the map….more than SIX MILLION PEOPLE, murdered. Such people claim that the six million count was wildly exaggerated…..that there are no credible records…no real “paper trail” to support the “claim”….no gas chambers….etc. etc.
The black and white images in this memorial, and similar ones all over the world, tell a far different, incontrovertible story. One need only Google “Holocaust” and in an instant hundreds upon hundreds of images from as many credible sources are to be found. You’ve seen them, to be sure, dear reader…but though we must tell and retell until the end of time I still cannot post even one gruesome image.
Standing in front of a wall of names of those who rescued Jews, a memory surfaces from some thirty years ago when I first arrived in Stuttgart Germany as a young military wife. As clear as yesterday I am sitting on a city bus with my toddler son sleeping on my lap. I’d only been in country for a couple of weeks and was taking my first trip downtown for shopping. Across from me an old man sits, his arm resting on an elaborately carved handle on a cane made of dark wood. His body language seems sad beyond measure. Our eyes met…it was barely a fleeting moment. Was I imagining the weight of that evil not so long ago in his eyes? I still remember being startled by the question in my heart…
Which were you…friend or foe?
I’m almost too ashamed to admit that I would spend three years in Germany without a visit to the concentration camps. I did visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, an almost featherweight view in comparison, I know. But the actual camps...
I simply could not do it.
Here I am today: Miss Cookie has made her way home, grateful (as I am) that we shared this memorial visit together. Though we were subdued for the remainder of that day we managed to finish the weekend visit with a fun-filled day of shopping for dinner fixings and then chopping those fixings to music and girlfriend talk. How lucky am I for a friend like Miss Cookie; she filled my home with her unique wit, love, laughter, and the still-lingering scent of her fabulous Hungarian Goulash.
As I walked with The Poodle this morning, I opt for no music…just silence. I am still thinking about the memorial visit. Perhaps it’s the approach of bitter cold weather that makes me think of the Holocaust or the few pages I’ve read of the historical fiction book I picked up just yesterday, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris. A wave of cold grips me though I’m bundled up quite nicely in a down coat. Dry, crisp autumn leaves swirl about us as the wind picks up. “Let’s go home Poodle-love and sit together for awhile.”
The nightmare of those years makes me ask a hundred questions in my mind. And now, uppermost in my thoughts in this moment, as I sit here struggling for the right words for this post with images swirling in my head of unspeakable things that I did not personally endure (and, failing miserably, to articulate anything coherent) is:
How is it that birds still sing?
How is it that the sun still shines?
…And how can I feel so content with my poodle-love in my lap….when….
well, you get it….right?