A Visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

by Gray Cargill on June 24, 2015

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Note: Photography wasn’t allowed in the Holocaust Museum at the time of my visit. All the interior photos you see here are from the Museum website. Lucky for future visitors, this policy changed this year, and photography and video are now allowed. There are some restrictions though; see their photo policy at their website.

I expected this museum to make me cry, and I’m both sorry and not sorry to say it didn’t. “Not sorry” because I hate crying in public. “Sorry” because you definitely should feel like crying in a museum dedicated to the millions of Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. My lack of tears at this museum doesn’t mean I have a heart of stone, in case you were wondering. Later in the week, I got weepy at the Newseum’s 9/11 Exhibit.

I donated to the building of this Museum, back in the late 1980s-early 1990s. It was a small donation, because I was a poor, starving college student at the time, but I felt very strongly that this museum needed to be built. I believe in the saying “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” So I have felt invested in it ever since. This was my first opportunity since that time to visit.

The building is pretty nondescript from the outside. There’s a great quote just outside the door from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during WWII, and later, U.S. President) upon his visit to Ohrdruf Concentration Camp in 1945:

Eisenhower Quote

This describes the purpose of the Museum to a T.

This describes the purpose of this museum to a T. (And my goodness, was he prescient, or what? How did he know at that time that people would try to deny the Holocaust ever happened?)

Like other museums in DC, you have to go through security to enter the building, and this includes a bag check. It’s very quick and perfunctory. (At all of them, not just this one. I’ve had more rigorous bag checks at Disney World.)

I toured this museum very quickly, as it turns out. My legs were sore from all the walking I’d done that morning, and I was starting to feel very hungry and dehydrated. But mostly, the reason I went through it quickly was because the layout of this museum is not ideal for crowds.

At the beginning of the museum is a long narrow hallway with a lot of multimedia–written text and films depicting events during WWII leading up to and including the Holocaust. The result of this is that it turns into a crowded bottleneck of people who don’t move for a very long time. I get easily claustrophobic, so I couldn’t take it. Eventually, I pushed my way through the crowd, skipping a lot of information, until I felt I had a bit more elbow room and could breathe again. Whew.

Railcar

Front view of the railcar on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Edward Owen

But then it happened again at later sections of the museum, too. So the most I got out of the museum were from the rooms that were less crowded at the point in time when I reached them. (Apparently, the architect, James Freed, intentionally designed the museum so visitors would feel claustrophobic, to recreate the feeling of people herded into rail cars headed to concentration camps. Well done, Mr. Freed; it worked.)

I studied the Holocaust quite a bit when I was younger, so I knew a lot of the information presented at the museum. There were no huge epiphanies for me. That said, three areas of the Museum had a strong emotional impact on me, like a punch to the gut:

1. The rail car. It was the size of train cars that were used to transport Jews from their homes to what they thought were work camps, but were really death camps. Once I was standing inside of it, it was easy to imagine the conditions they suffered: No heat in the winter, no food, no water, and too many people crowded into too small a space. Horrible.

2. The Tower of Faces. This three-story tower is lined on all walls with family photos as far up and down as the eye can see. They’re family portraits, the same as many of us take with our families. You look at their faces, their style of clothing, and you can’t help but wonder what their lives were like before everything was destroyed.

Why is this exhibit so emotionally powerful? I’ll let the caption from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum describe it for you:

Tower of Faces

This three-story tower displays photographs from the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania, the photographs depict a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years. In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village and within two days massacred the Jewish population.–US Holocaust Memorial Museum

 

3. The room of shoes. This exhibit was simple, but powerful: Thousands of old shoes in a pile, shoes that had survived the concentration camps and gas chambers, while their owners did not. Shoes greying with age and the dust of the ovens. The smell hit me as soon as I walked near them. It was a horrible smell, the smell of death.

Speaking of which…There were couples there with very young children (toddlers). This is just my personal opinion, but I think that’s a too young to visit a museum like this. At that age, they cannot possibly understand what they’re seeing and will be bored; and once young children are bored, they get fussy and throw tantrums, and that is not at all the atmosphere you want in a museum like this. I’d recommend waiting until they’re old enough to understand the gravity of what they’re seeing–without it scaring them.

I would really like to return to this Museum sometime when I know it won’t be as busy, but I’m not sure when that would be. I went on a Sunday a little after noon. I was surprised by how busy it was. I thought I was being smart by avoiding weekday school groups.

One last note: There is a Museum Cafe across the courtyard outside the front door. It’s cafeteria-style dining, and won’t win any foodie awards, but it’s quick, has some healthy options (I had a good caprese salad), and is reasonably priced. While the Museum was busy, the cafe had plenty of seating and was quiet. It was a nice spot to rest for awhile and process what I’d seen at the museum.

 

Katie August 24, 2015 at 12:28 am

A genocide that should never be forgotten, so that we may never allow such a crime to happen again…

Gray Cargill August 25, 2015 at 8:53 pm

Amen, Katie.

Tracy Antonioli August 17, 2015 at 10:26 am

I got through maybe two thirds of this museum before needing to leave, lest I start sobbing in public. I strongly recommend it to all, but yeah. The crying was an issue. My husband made it all the way through and met me at the end.

Gray Cargill August 17, 2015 at 6:44 pm

I think I might have been more emotional myself if I hadn’t been so claustrophobic.

Harry Connor July 14, 2015 at 2:06 am

Wow… great post.. I was there 3 weeks ago. And this is true that the three-story tower is so emotionally powerful..

Gray Cargill July 16, 2015 at 8:29 pm

Right, Harry? It’s one thing to hear the numbers, but it’s another to see all those faces…

Jhon Lingkon July 12, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Museum are great place for traveling time, like a time machine to go back to the past

Gray Cargill July 16, 2015 at 8:28 pm

It’s the closest to time travel we’ll ever get, I guess, Jhon. 🙂

Kirstin June 24, 2015 at 4:25 pm

When I was in Amsterdam I avoided going to the Anne Frank House. I didn’t have a good reason for not going but having read about what the Nazi’s did I just couldn’t face it.

I agree that toddlers don’t belong in a Holocaust Museum.

Gray Cargill June 25, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Yeah, it’s definitely tough to face sites that remind us of tragedies, Kirstin. Sometimes I can handle it, sometimes I can’t. For instance, I can’t imagine visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum. I would be an emotional mess there, I think.

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