I knew this had to be the first stop on my second day exploring the Mall. I just finished re-reading one of my very favorite books, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which follows the story of a German girl and her foster family who hide a Jewish man in their basement during WWII, so the anguish was already at an almost unbearable level before I even got through the door.
They don't let you take any pictures inside the exhibit, but I did want to share a few impressions that I had while there. The first, is that although the things I saw there were unthinkably terrible, it wasn't so much about what you see there but about how you feel. I felt shame knowing that the first victims of Hitler were the handicapped and disabled. I felt embarrassed that there were hair color guides and wall charts describing the ways to identify "non-Aryans." I felt very small standing in hallways filled with names and faces of people I will never met, and who suffered unthinkable abuse when I am safe and free. I felt angry when the teenagers there on a high school field trip laughed and texted instead of mourning. It made we wonder if I would have been one of the truly brave, who reached out to help those around them, to hide them, to save them, or would I have turned away, content to know that I wasn't the persecutor or the persecuted.
One of the most powerful exhibits was a walkway that connects two rooms. In the alcove between the two rooms and under the walkway were hundreds and hundreds of pairs of dusty shoes. Shoes taken from the feet of Jewish prisoners moments before they were led to the gas chamber. If you can't read the words on the wall, it is a quote by the Yiddish Poet Moses Schulstein that says:
"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. "
The museum makes it a point that we know, as visitors, that we become part of the witness of the Holocaust. That it happened. That it could happen again. Now I am part of that witness. And as I was leaving, I passed a little grey-haired lady who is a Holocaust survivor. Someone who volunteers to talk to visitors, and I bet more often than not, comfort them after the horror they had just seen. Me? I couldn't even look her in the eye as I walked by. I will never know what she lived through. But I CAN bear witness.