Earlier this month I visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. It was a harrowing but also rewarding experience. The mood and lighting was dark, as befitting the subject matter. The exhibits were laid out in a logical and accessible manner:
- The first floor explored the rise to power of the Nazi Party, the beginning of persecution, and life in Nazi society. While the museum is predominantly dedicated to the lives of Jewish victims, it also remembers other persecuted groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities, and homosexuals.
- The second floor examined the wartime evolution of Nazi policy, from ghettoisation to mass murder in killing fields and gas chambers.
- The final floor addressed the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and the liberation of the Nazi camps, rescue and resistance efforts, and the aftermath of the Holocaust.
The exhibits were a powerful reminder of the darkness of humanity. They also highlighted the frightening ease with which ordinary people can become complicit in or tolerant of the darkness.
Included here are photos of exhibits that most resonated with me. I hope they will resonate with you as well.
Entrants to the concentration camps had their clothes and belongings confiscated, and made to wear identical striped uniforms.
Beautiful interior of the Essen synagogue, before Kristallnacht “Night of the Broken Glass” (9-10 November 1938).
Interior of the Essen synagogue after Kristallnacht, which was a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms (ie, a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group).
A walkway filled with images of Jewish people in everyday life.
Closeups of some pictures in the walkway.
“… in spite of everything I still believe that people are realy good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.”
Final letter written by Szmul Zygielbojm, a Jewish-Polish politician who committed suicide to protest the indifference of the Allied governments in the face of the Holocaust. “By my death i wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is standing by and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people.”
Interior of a train compartment used to carry people to the death camps. Nazi railway networks were instrumental in the efficient transportation and killing of Holocaust victims. In summer the passengers would be overwhelmed by the oppressive heat and filthy stench; in winter, they would be afflicted by unbearable and deadly chills.
Map showing the location of Gestapo (secret police) prisons, death camps and concentration camps in Germany, 1945.
“Work sets you free”. The slogan appeared on the entrance of Auschwitz and other labour camps, highlighting its cruel irony.
Model of a gas chamber door at Auschwitz. The prisoners were shepherded into chambers that looked like shower facilities. Zyklon B pellets were dropped into the vents to release the hydrogen cyanide.
A mound of shoes belonging to Holocaust victims. When you’re standing there observing it, the emotional impact is striking.
More closeups of Jewish life in the walkway.
An excerpt from a leaflet published by White Rose, one of the few intellectual resistance groups in Nazi Germany. The words resonate to this day – bad things happen when normal people do nothing.