The doors of the elevator close quickly behind you. Inside, the walls are paneled with plain gray steel. You get the feeling that you're trapped, that something bad is about to happen. A video monitor mounted to the ceiling flickers on as you begin to rise. "We have come across something, we're not sure what it is," says the voice of an American soldier, as World War II-era American tanks roll past a barbed-wire enclosure. "It's some kind of prison," the soldier says, obviously upset. "There are people lying all over. Sick, dying, starved people. Things like this don't happen. You can't imagine." Then the elevator doors glide silently open.
It takes a moment for your eyes to register the first image at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It looks like the remains of a wooden house that has burned to the ground. But the enormous black-and-white photo facing the elevator shows the charred corpses of more than 50 Jews killed in the Ohrdruf concentration camp. Standing at the side of the photo, 16-year-old Laurie Corder and her twin brother, Matt, who are visiting with their parents from Chicago, are speechless at first.
"Those are bodies," Laurie says after a moment. "They look fake."
"God," Matt says, "what happened to these guys?"
Making sure the world knows exactly what happened to these 50 Jewish prisoners, and to the 6 million Jews and other victims who were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany during World War II, is the mission of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Since it opened its doors in 1993, more than 3.5 million people have come to see the museum's powerful exhibits.
On most days, the museum is full, and today is no exception. Most of the visitors are teenagers, here on school-sponsored trips. Whether they're Jewish or not, nearly everyone finds the museum an emotional place to visit.
The buildings have been designed to make visitors uneasy. Stark brick and steel halls echo the look of the barracks and gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps. But the most powerful effect is created by viewing the museum's exhibits. It is "a thought-provoking and personally upsetting experience," says Jeshajahu Weinberg, the museum's director, "and so it should be. The museum has been built to tell the factual story of the most terrible event in modern history."
The museum's main exhibition begins on the fourth floor with a simple statement printed on the wall: "In 1933, there were more than nine million Jews living in continental Europe. Within a dozen years, two-thirds of them would be dead." The museum attempts to answer the question that nearly everyone asks when confronted with the fact: How could this happen?
Many of the students crowded into the fourth floor look bored with material that seems like ancient history. Video screens and black-and-white photos document how ancient anti-Semitism, or prejudice against Jews, was exploited by German leader Adolf Hitler during his rise to power. Suffering through the worldwide Depression of the 1930s and still smarting from their defeat in World War I, the Germans wanted a scapegoat. And Hitler offered them the Jews. Students pause to watch videos of Hitler addressing huge rallies, declaring that "cleansing" the nation of Jews and other "undesirables," such as homosexuals, Gypsies, and the handicapped, will make Germany great again.
The Nazi assault on the Jews of Europe began with acts of discrimination common to Jews for centuries — beatings and boycotts. Many Jews thought that if they were patient, the storm of Nazi anti-Semitism would eventually blow over. Those who tried to leave Europe found few countries willing to accept them. As you descend to the third floor of the museum, you begin to feel the Nazi net tightening around Europe's Jews.
"In defending myself against the Jews I am acting for the Lord," reads a quote from Hitler lettered on a wall. "The difference between the church and me is that I am finishing the job." Finishing the job meant enacting his "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," the Nazi plan to kill all Jews in lands under German control. The first phase of the Final Solution involved herding Jews into "ghettos," where they were isolated from the non-Jewish population. From the ghettos, they were funneled into a system of concentration camps that, by the end of World War II, numbered more than 1,000.
On the museum's third floor, all visitors must pass through a railway freight car that was used to transport prisoners to death camps in Poland. It is a small, wooden car with slits for windows. A sign explains that as many as 100 people would be crowded inside for days without food or water. Rachel Stern, 16, and her classmates from San Francisco step quickly back after entering the car. "I can't go in there," Rachel says. "It smells."
"This probably smells like perfume compared to what it was like with 100 people inside," says her friend Scott Swenson, 17. They cautiously enter the car, touching the scratches on the bare wooden walls, imagining the terror of being locked inside. When they walk out, they are quiet.
Remnants of Terror
The centerpiece of the museum is a re-creation of Auschwitz, the notorious death camp in Poland, where more than one million people were killed. You pass through an iron gate, past piles of cutlery, scissors, and toothbrushes that were confiscated as prisoners arrived, and heaps of human hair that was shaved from their scalps. Visitors file past a model of a gas chamber into which up to 1,000 prisoners were herded at once, then killed with deadly Zyklon-B gas dropped through vents in the ceiling. Finally, after the gas chamber, you came to a replica of Auschwitz's ovens, which could burn dozens of corpses at one time. Nearby, 15-year-old Suparna Rajmane, who is visiting from Bombay, India, with her parents, sits on a bench. She is listening to a recording of an Auschwitz survivor speaking about the day she arrived at the camp. "A man in a uniform pointed me one way and my parents in another," says the voice of Fritzie Fritzshall. "'When will I see my mother again?'I asked him. He pointed to the smoke coming out of the chimneys. I was 15, and all alone in this hell."
Suparna is visibly shaken. "It's one thing to know that Nazis murdered millions of people," she says. "It's another to put yourself in their place."
On the second floor, where the exhibition ends, visitors learn of the aftermath of the Holocaust. They learn that Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, and the handicapped perished alongside Jews. They see how millions of refugees struggled to survive in Europe after World War II. And they learn of the creation of Israel in 1948, which provided sanctuary for many of Europe's remaining Jews.
Then the material comes full circle, with video monitors playing film of American, British, and Russian soldiers encountering the human devastation of the concentration camps for the first time. The Corder family hunches over one monitor and watches gruesome footage of British soldiers pushing children's corpses into a mass grave with bulldozers. "God, look at those bodies," Laurie says to her brother between sobs, "the sores on them . . . Those are just boys."
The Living Past
For many of the students who have passed through the exhibition, the distant historical world contained in the photo of corpses that greeted them by the elevators has been brought to life.
It hasn't been a pleasant process and not everyone is glad they've come. But nearly all who've passed through the museum have been affected by what they've seen. "I didn't think I needed to come here," says 17-year-old Latania Dupree, who was required to come with her social-studies class from Baltimore, "but I learned a lot. I knew Hitler killed a lot of Jews. But this shows you it wasn't just one crazy guy. It was planned by a whole lot of people. They ran it all like a factory. People need to come here and see this so they don't let something like this happen ever again."
For more information, visit The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
Adapted from Scholastic Update, March 24, 1995