With so much time on his hands and nowhere in particular to go, Uncle Paul spends much of his day time traveling while seated on his couch. He was born in Vienna, a city he loved until the Nazis came to power. He has unpleasant memories of abuse endured at their hands: being made to scrub a filthy sidewalk with a small brush, for example, while a crowd smiled, clapped, jeered. Most shocking to him was how customers from the shoe store at which he was employed -- men and women who formerly treated him with respect -- could find so much joy in humiliating him. Uncle Paul did in time flee to New York (via Italy), and was able after long labor to bring his wife, brother and sister over as well. A sorrow he now lives with every day, though, was his inability to convince his mother to flee. She vanished into a concentration camp, and he does not know where or when she perished. We assume that she, like most victims, was robbed, psychologically abused, stripped, gassed, and cremated. We suppose that many other women and many children died with her, in fear and in pain. Uncle Paul tells the story of his failure almost every day now, and cries each time he speaks the lines "I did not save her." We can't convince him that he could not.
My son has been haunted by these Holocaust stories, especially because they come from a person he loves. We decided yesterday that he and I would visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum together so that he could learn a little more about the event. Because our family has a membership in the museum (we are charter members, in fact), Kid #1 and I did not have to wait in line for admission tickets -- meaning that for the first ten minutes of the building's opening we had the dark exhibition to ourselves. I've visited the place perhaps four times already, but something about the elevator clanging shut to convey visitors to the start of the displays on the fourth floor gets to me every time. The doors open ... and you are staring at a huge photograph of dead bodies in stacks. That's the first time my son began to cry. Many more times followed.
I won't go through the minutiae of the exhibit, but I will say that these things struck both of us:
- very often it was the absence of the dead body that was most moving (an exhibit of shoes, of concentration camp uniforms, of abandoned toys ... all these items stand in for the lost life in a way that is individuating and painful almost to the point of being unendurable)
- nonetheless, to look upon the dead in all their numbers was agonizing
- most horrible was the enjoyment evident in the photographs of ordinary citizens demeaning Jews or making Nazi salutes. How can people love their hatred to such excess?
At the age of ten Kid #1 is probably too young for the museum, but I don't regret taking him. We talked about what we saw during the day, and we both knew as well that there were times when we should stop talking and do something dumb (like go to my office and shoot elastics at the Office Manager, unlucky enough to be in that day).