“It happened, therefore it can happen again.” ~Primo Levi (Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor)
On Thursday my friend Erica and I went to Houston’s Holocaust museum. We got to talking about the museums we’d like to see. I told her I wanted to see the Holocaust Museum, but I’ve never brought it up to anyone because I thought it might be too depressing.
“Are you sure?” she asked. I could tell she was wondering if I could handle it just after finishing cancer treatment.
In truth, I wasn’t sure myself, but I’ve always been interested in World War II history. So, without hesitation, I said, “Yes. I want to see it.”
Even outside the museum I could feel the solemnity hanging heavily around the building.
The front of the museum is a monument lined with concrete squares. Each square memorializes a Jewish community destroyed during the Holocaust.
There were so many squares. They stretched out at an angle from the sidewalk to the roofline.
Erica and I went inside and paid for our tickets. A high school tour group was just getting started. The docent leading the group was an older gentleman, perhaps in his 70’s or 80’s. He had a thick Jewish accent, used big hand gestures and had a colorful demeanor.
Before the tour began the tour he directed the attention of the high school seniors to the words written across the front wall of the museum.
The words read ‘BEARING WITNESS’.
The guide asked the group, “Does anyone know what that means?”
One girl offered tentatively, “Um… watching something?”
“Yes. You’re on the right track,” he nodded, his bald head shining beneath the overhead lights. “But it’s more than that. Come with me. I’ll show you.”
“We need to follow that guy,” I whispered to Erica and we fell in line behind the kids.
Houston’s Holocaust Museum is set up like an interactive timeline. It begins just before the Holocaust with images of smiling Jewish and non-Jewish families mingling and working together.
The mood slowly darkened the deeper into the museum we moved.
We saw images of Hitler and his Nazi’s boycotting Jewish stores and shops. Our docent explained that the German people pushed back when their lives were suddenly inconvenienced.
Yeah, it’s a real bitch when you can’t buy from the local butcher or dress maker because they’re Jewish.
Their push-back worked, too. The boycott lasted one day.
Imagine what might have been avoided if the German people had pushed back when Hitler turned to something more than just boycotting.
The guide showed us images of book burnings. Anything written by an unapproved author went into the fire. Jack London. Ernest Hemingway. Helen Keller.
Especially Helen Keller. Any author that was both blind and deaf could not be worthy of the Third Reich.
People who had previously been neighbors were now turning on each other. Laws were established that no German citizen was permitted to produce offspring with someone of Jewish descent.
Synagogues were destroyed and crowds of Jewish people forced by Nazi guards to listen while pornographic anti-Semitic articles were read aloud.
I winced with awful, useless pity at how embarrassing and frightening that must have been for the men and women in those crowds. How they must have worried about what their children were hearing.
The further we moved into the museum the harder it got to look at the images on the walls.
We saw the Jewish ghettos where people lived like cattle.
Starving, dying cattle.
We saw the concentration camps where murder (a word the tour guide used liberally and unapologetically throughout the entire tour) was performed on a grand scale.
There were medical experiments conducted on children. I saw images of naked children burned head to toe and young boys with their sex organs removed. All done in the name of science.
I saw firing ranges where the victims were first made to dig their own graves, strip, then kneel at the edge before being shot in the back of the head by a Nazi soldier. The women with infants had to hold up their baby as they knelt. The baby would be shot first and then the mother.
Women who were pregnant or who had infants were considered less than useless. Sometimes as the people were herded off the trains a Nazi guard would snatch an infant from its mother’s arms and swing it by its feet so the baby’s head smashed against the side of the train car.
The mother was more useful without the baby.
The Holocaust Museum is not a comfortable place. It is designed to mimic the journey of the Jewish people. I found myself getting upset and fighting tears, but I was trapped in a crowd. All I wanted was space to breathe.
I threaded my way out of the crowd to find an empty place and pull myself together. I found myself next to a display of a small satchel someone used long before I was born. I doubt the person that carried it had the luxury of bowing out of the crowd the way I did.
Near the satchel I saw this quote stenciled on the wall:
“The best way I can describe Auschwitz is the fact that I saw death every second of the day.”
This was said by Siegi Isakson, a survivor whose entire immediate family perished.
Can I identify with that? Can I imagine how it must be to worry every second of every day that you’ll die? To watch the people around you die? And you can do absolutely nothing?
After cancer, yes, I can identify. But only a little. The suffering these people endured goes beyond anything in my experience.
Did you know that in the concentration camps the Jewish people were tasked with cleaning up the bodies of other Jews after they’d been gassed? Oh, and the bodies weren’t just disposed of.
First their gold teeth were pulled and the women’s hair was cut to stuff pillows and mattresses.
These clean-up crews were periodically shot so that word of the crematoriums wouldn’t get out.
Word got out anyway.
So the Nazis stopped hiding it and just let the smoke from burning bodies flow from the chimneys all day and night.
I thought of Siegi Isakson, whose whole family ‘perished’.
What an pathetically gentle word for such abhorrence.
Did people like Siegi Isakson have to clean up the bodies of their own wives and daughters from the gas chambers? How many men had to shear the hair off their wife’s head or pull their child’s teeth before burning the body in the oven? How many of them lost their minds? How many of them welcomed that final gunshot?
Suicide was not uncommon. All they had to do was grasp the electrified fence.
After a while the pictures gradually became happier again.
There were stories of camps liberated at the end of the war and of survivors miraculously reunited with lost children. Survivors moved to far flung places around the world. A fair number ended up in Houston.
The final display was a group of placards detailing the war crimes trials.
People were convicted and sentences passed down. Some of these were life imprisonments. Others, death sentences.
At the bottom of each placard was a note about the outcomes of those sentences. I read these outcomes and felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
Six million people died horribly at the hands of the Nazis. Jewish people, gypsies, handicapped people, those of Slavic descent, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses…
I mean, does it really matter what they were?
Because before they were labeled, they were people.
Six million people were murdered.
Do you know how many death sentences those placards said were actually carried out?
Does that make you angry? Me, too.
As Erica and I exited the exhibition hall we again saw the words on the front of the museum.
I know what that means now.
Explore where you live,