United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Last time we were in Washington I think we must have sprinted to see every single Smithsonian Museum. After returning to Australia, I soon started my Masters of Museum & Heritage Studies. Throughout this course, I learnt so much about the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I absolutely regretted not visiting! It was first on my to-see list if I ever returned to Washington. Luckily, the opportunity came, and I was able to see the museum with this knowledge in mind. Not only do I want to discuss the permanent exhibition that covers three floors, but also, the temporary exhibition “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story”. When we arrived at the museum it was extremely busy, mostly filled with school children. A very helpful member of staff told us it would be best to see the temporary exhibition before making our way to the permanent display on the top floor. This proved to be an excellent decision.

Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story

This was actually one of the most powerful exhibitions I have ever seen on the Holocaust. It took this entire horrific event and presented it through the eyes of children. A variety of diary entries and stories from different children were compiled together to create the fictional character of Daniel. Although fictional, every experience in the exhibition had been derived from primary source material. This is all explained in the first room that also has a video playing on loop showing the escalation of anti-Semitism.

The whole exhibition looks and feels like you are walking through a children’s picture book. The labels are large diary pages with a child’s handwriting telling the story. They were only short, yet allowed for so much information and emotion to be communicated. Often the labels were placed in areas that could be accessed by both adults and children – positioned low on walls or on top of props at a child’s eye level. As the text was so big, adults didn’t have to strain their necks bending down to read.

The first place you visit after the introductory film is Daniel’s house. You can explore what his room looked like before the Holocaust and see what he learnt in school and how he helped around the house. The integration of museum objects was particularly well done in this room. Next to Daniel’s bed was a desk with drawers you could pull out. Inside were some original toys used by children prior to the War.

On leaving his house, the exhibition gets darker and darker. The diary page labels become more torn and discoloured. You walk through a street showing Jewish businesses closed or destroyed. Then, you enter the ghetto and see how Daniel’s life transformed from his comfortable and warm home prior to the War to the conditions of the ghetto.

Finally, you see a label that simply states “my worst fear has come true. They are taking us away.” The impact this label had in the overall exhibition was astounding. Nothing had to be shown or described in detail yet you understood what was likely going to happen next.

The final room had a short film playing on the end of the war and liberation. Before leaving, we saw three tables for children where they could write a postcard to Daniel recording their experience of the display and how they felt. We did see some children visiting and they were interacting with the exhibition in quite an in depth way. Presenting it to them in a format that they can understand and/or connect with, can really speak to a child and be of more benefit. It was such a beautifully constructed exhibition that presented a strong message woven into this story of innocence and suffering. Adults will benefit just as much as children from visiting this exhibition.

Permanent Display

Next we visited the permanent display. Before taking the lift to the top floor, you can select an identity card of someone who either lived through or died during the Holocaust. I particularly liked this approach. Hearing six million people were killed during the Holocaust just sounds too horrible to comprehend. It becomes a statistic. Physically seeing the face of one of these victims or survivors, however, allows for that emotional connection. On each level you can read about what happened to the individual.

The top floor covers the lead up to the Holocaust and the introduction of systematic segregation. It was unbelievably busy so we tried our best to read as much as we could. From what I could see, the actual displays were so well curated. One section on identifying race had hair and eye samples used to determine race positioned on top of relevant photographs or posters. Each display case had a large thematic panel that covered some of the basic information. Although it was white text on a black background, it was printed large enough to not be a problem.

Before heading to the next floor, you walk through a room covered in photographs. These were taken in Lithuania of Jewish individuals and families. It is not until the end of the exhibition that you discover every person in these photographs was killed over two days. Nine hundred years of Jewish culture in Eishishok was destroyed in two days. Linking back to the identity card, seeing their faces had such impact. It also reminded visitors of the culture that was lost.

The next floor covered the establishment of the ghettos and initial deportations. An aspect of the display that I found to be most thoughtful was the showing of graphic footage. In some areas there are moderately high walls that have a warning printed on the front regarding the graphic nature of the film. If you want to see, you lean over the wall where there are TVs. It would be near impossible for small children to see this footage. Something that has stayed with me from my museum studies course has been the notion that to teach trauma, you don’t want to traumatise.

This floor had some powerful objects including a train cart used to transport Jewish prisoners. Seeing the objects rather than just hearing about what happened added that new layer of understanding. Everywhere you turned to look, you were reminded again and again of what happened. Even cobblestone floors were revealed to be from the Warsaw Ghetto. Objects such as these were more often than not donated by individuals or Polish museums.

At the end of this floor was a room called the “Voices of Auschwitz.” Here you can sit inside and listen to testimonies. There were also transcriptions available for people to read or for those with hearing difficulties.

After walking through to the next section, you stand face to face with hundreds of shoes. I had read so much about this room, but nothing could fully prepare me for this experience. Their smell is something I will never forget. There is something so personal about shoes. It links to that saying that to understand someone’s experiences or motives you need to walk a mile in their shoes. It is also a piece of clothing worn so regularly. You start to wonder who put on a pair of these shoes everyday.

Finally, we made our way to the ground floor which focused on liberation and the aftermath. In the middle of the main exhibition space was a white wall containing the names of those who helped rescue Jewish individuals during the war. It is still a growing and developing project. There were also small displays on resistance including the White Rose Movement from Munich. The exhibition ends with videos of survivor testimonies. We sat and listened to quite a few. There were uplifting stories of people finding each other after the horror. There were also reminders that this history must never be repeated.

I hope we can learn this lesson one day.

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