Sunday, January 25, 2009

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Bearing witness

Yesterday I experienced the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in a way I wasn’t expecting. Of course I knew it would be heart-wrenching to see what these people experienced, but I never thought it would hit me so hard.

First, thank you to the museum and all the donors who made this a place worthy of remembering.
As most of us who visited might say, one thing I visually remembering seeing consistently throughout was the quote by Elie Wiesel saying, “For the dead and the living we must bear witness.” I keep thinking, how could you not? Well, I’ve been to this museum before and clearly didn’t remember much of it. In my own life I’m really bothered when I can’t do anything in certain situations. In this case, I literally can’t. But I started to think about other things that I do and realized that I can contribute in other ways.

Adolf Hitler, the man responsible for this tragedy, served as Chancellor from 1933-1945 followed by what we would call the President of Germany from 1934-1945. He joined the Nazi Party in 1920 and made his way claiming leadership shortly after in 1921. This led to his appointment as Chancellor in 1933. It is believed that under his leadership six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

As for the museum, it was like this never ending stretch of darkness adorning the walls on both sides. I remember seeing the tattoo display and wondering what the prisoners were thinking when stamped with a number. Up until this year’s election I’ve always felt like just a small face in the crowd… but this is serious, it’s not a vote, it’s a live human being. I also vividly remember walking through the dark and empty rail car that was on display in the middle of the museum. Chills ran through my body as I stepped inside. Prisoners were subjected to starvation, illness and at times, freezing temperatures.

This is pure insanity.

I also recall reading an excerpt that was written on the wall on a partial quote from Hitler speaking to his military leaders on August 22, 1939. “I have issued the command—and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad—that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy,” he said. How can anyone think this way? I don’t believe a human being could be filled with this much hatred. You what this quote means, so I’ll leave it at that.

It’s hard to fully grasp how this happened. I think about surrounding countries and, with pure frustration and anger, wonder why nothing was done. How could they sit back and do NOTHING? Maybe someone can provide an explanation because I certainly don’t get it. We see the Holocaust as a historical event but fail to recognize that was the culture, that’s how things were during that time and nothing could be done about it.

Finally, although I can’t bear witness to this event, I can bear witness to a current situation. Mission work is incredibly important to me and I want to help those in need. The situation in Darfur is scary and although it’s still going on, people all over the world are contributing in many ways. As a direct result of what I experienced yesterday, I want to be an advocate for genocide in Darfur.

-Erica Schrader


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  2. Good post. One of the most striking things at the Holocaust Museum for me was a quote on the wall by Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Jew.

    "Then they came for me - And there was no one to speak for me."

    The quote really jabs at the way people tend to overlook injustice that does not affect them, as so many Germans (and so many people across the world) did during World War II. If we can learn any lesson from a visit to the Holocaust Museum, we should find it in this quote. Justice for others is justice for ourselves, whether or not we are directly affected. (Now apply the same lesson to South Africa in the 1980s, to Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur now, and so on.)

    -James Spung

  3. The same quote that James referenced was the one that stuck out to me during our time there. Reading everything and trying to soak in the experiences that these individuals must have undertaken was all-consuming, but that quote leaves nothing to the imagination. And while we tend to examine the Holocaust and see only horror, it's also the ultimate story of love-of reaching out from one brother to another and opening doors, basements, attics, food, nothing short of a perfect stranger. Impressive, really. It's a story of pain and seemingly unending suffering, but also one of hope. It's heart-wrenching to think of the inflicted, but heart-warming to remember the good. I was affected but the hurt, but impressed with the man's workbench that hid an entrance to a basement where a family was hidden for nearly two years. There may be ache from the past, but I take joy in knowing humankind has a second, third, fourth, fifth opportunity to prove itself compassionate.

    -Danika Heatherly

  4. This museum was an overwhelming experience for me also. I think the most intense part of the exhibit was seeing all the shoes that belonged to the victims. It made the tragic events all the more real and saddening when I realized that each pair of shoes belonged a person; someone just like me. I was also wondering the whole time how everyone just watched and didn't do anything. However, it's hard to say that I would do something if I were put in the same position. It's one of those things that you think you would do the right thing in that situation, but who knows what would happen if you were actually there and could lose your life as a result.

    -Jordan Kamikawa


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