Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Being Haunted by the Children

As I get older, I think from time to time about certain things that I have done during my life: mistakes I have made; emotional hurt that I have inflicted on friends (accidentally or otherwise); episodes where I have done something to disappoint my family. I know that I have received forgiveness for many of them, whether spoken or understood, from family and friends and from God, and I tuck them away as part of my life's experience and move on.

Today, thoughts about the severity of things I have done were all suddenly and quickly forced completely out of the picture. I took the metro into Washington and made my first trip to the United States Holocaust Museum, and after two hours left realizing -- perhaps even more than I already did -- that anything I had done in my life paled by comparison to the overwhelming, almost indescribable tragedy of what happened during the Holocaust.

My impressions of my visit are still whirling through my head, and I haven't been able to make sense of many of them. But there is one thing that I'm haunted by, and that is the photographs of all of the children's faces. Pictures of children with their families; children with their schoolmates in class; children with their playmates out in their yards or in the streets of their towns; children whose greatest worry in life was how they would spend their free time, or getting their studies done so that their bar- or bat-mitzvah would be successful, or attending services on the next Shabbat with their family.

Children who should have been allowed to live as children -- but not to die as children.

There was one picture in a gallery of photographs that is burned into my memory, of a little girl for whom I started weeping after I left the museum (and for whom I am weeping again while I type this). She was a beautiful little girl, maybe three or four years older than MB, with dark wavy hair and a very shy expression on her face. She is sitting on a bed in her home, surrounded by quilts and blankets, and lookly calmly into the camera. There was no name or age or anything attached to the photograph; she was just a little girl who was happy and safe and secure -- and ultimately, perhaps, one who never lived long enough to think back on a happy childhood. There was nothing that should have made this picture stand out among the hundreds of others on display throughout the museum, but she quickly caught my eye -- and I haven't been able to forget her in the hours since.

The entire experience was overwhelming and emotionally draining, if for no other reason than there are certain things on display that put you right in the middle of that time. I've broken this list apart because, like walking through the museum, you have to take the time to look at each of these individually and be impacted by them individually:

The front gates from a Jewish cemetery where hundreds of people were taken, lined up, and shot to death among the bones of their ancestors.

A collection of hundreds of photos of Jews from the town of Eishyshok, Lithuania, where 900 years of history, tradition, and family ties were completely erased in just two days.

A reconstruction of a section of brick wall from the Warsaw Ghetto.

A railroad car which carried many to the concentration camps, and which you experience not from the outside but by actually walking into and through it, and seeing and feeling just a bit of what those families experienced during their final trips.

A reconstruction of the doors of two of the crematory ovens from the Majdanek death camp.

A room full of nothing but thousands and thousands of shoes taken from people as they first entered the Majdanek camp, while above them on the wall are the words of this poem written by Moses Schulstein:

We are the shoes, We are the last witnesses
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers.
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the Hellfire.

Then, as you pass through the last gallery on the tour, again, the children. A wall full of drawings done by children who were imprisoned in a ghetto for a time before being sent to Auschwitz, drawings that have names and birth dates and dates of shipment to the camp attached to each. Out of all of the ones I looked at, only two were listed as surviving the war.

So at the beginning, it was the children calling to me from their photographs, and at the end it was the children calling to me through their crayon and pencil drawings.

And the one little girl sitting ageless and full of life on a warm bed in her safe home.....


karen said...

I can't bear the thoughts of the Holocaust, and would never be able to get through the museum. My hats off to you.
In school they would show the movies. I'd start hyperventilating and ask to go to the restroom. It pierces my soul.

carrie said...

Your emotions come through this post so clearly. I was crying as I read it. I want to take my older children to the museum, even though I usually would try to protect them from pain. This is just too important not to do. They have to see, and they have to remember.

Thanks for the reminder.

Jennifer+ said...

This is so poignant. I have been wanting to go to the museum for years and just have never made it there. I think it's time I set a day aside and go. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings about your visit and about forgiveness/reconciliation.


Kristen said...

Thank you, Matt, for this incredible, emotional post. Your descriptions of the memorial are so haunting and touching.

The Holocaust Memorial in Boston is very different, but moving as well: it's a series of very tall panels of glass that surround you. Each one is etched with thousands and thousands of numbers - the numbers that were tatooed on the bodies of the prisoners of the death camps.

I don't know if I could make it through the one in D.C. I've always had a very difficult time understanding how human beings can be capable of such evil and hatred - especially against children. (And especially now that I have my own child.) I don't think I could have faced those children's drawings at the end. And, that little girl's picture - her eyes are so beautiful and haunting.

It's too much to take and yet we must, must never forget what happened.

NoVA Dad said...

I visited the Boston memorial back in 2004 when I had gone with my wife and her parents to visit some of their family in Massachusetts. That, too, was a very moving experience; there was one inscription in particular on one of the columns that I took a photograph of, written by a lady named Gerda Klein:

"Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend."

rdl said...

Oh my, great post, sad but great post. I was a little afraid when we went to the holocaust museum in montreal - but it was impactful without being too graphic/overwhelming. I do want to visit the Washington one when we go there. My mother's father saw the writing on the wall and left Hungary in time - the rest of his family perished.

Paula Reed said...

This is a powerful post, Matt. My most similar experience was visiting the Anne Frank hideout in Amsterdam. I was seventh months pregnant with my daughter, whom I knew was a girl from ultrasounds. I looked at the children's growth, marked on the wall by Otto Frank over their years there and, in the attached museum, photos of Anne when she was very small--one of her in a kiddie pool, holding her mother's hand, just as hoped my daughter would do one day. I wept the whole way through.

Thanks for your comment on my blog.

Kansas Bob said...

I am tearing up as I write Matt. It took me a long time to view Schindler's List ... the topic of the holocaust is such a dificult one. You have given me a new reason to visit DC ... maybe next spring. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Blessings, Bob

Loree Burns said...

Hi Matt,

Thank you for sharing this moving experience. I have not visited the Holocaust Museum, but plan to someday.

I wonder if you have seen the movie PAPER CLIPS? My husband and I watched it with our children; it was an incredibly moving experience for all of us. I blogged about it here:

Best wishes,
Loree Burns