Wednesday, July 25, 2007

At the Holocaust Museum

As I mentioned in the comments section a few days ago, last week we moved my spouse's great uncle to an assisted living center down the road from us. At 95 Uncle Paul is remarkably lucid, though he can't move around as much as he would like. Both our kids are fond of him, having known him via trips to Florida their whole lives.

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?
A horrible thought that struck me, and that I did not share with my son, was that in raising our children as Jews my wife and I are also endangering them. Ridiculous, I know, to think that ... but to see the chronicle of a world where Jews had gone from citizens to aliens in a few short years inspires such rumination. (And not that anyone was much better off being gay, disabled, or Roma in that world where myth masqueraded as science.)

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).


Eileen Joy said...

For me, it will always be the mound of shoes--all turned gray over time--that really stop me in my tracks at the Holocaust Museum. I'm actually planning to take my daughter there next week when we are visiting family in D.C., but as she is a wholly disaffected teenager who believes she is oppressed because I won't put her on my cell-phone plan, I cannot say ahead of time what effect the Museum will have on her. She will maybe say it is "cool" and "sad" and then immediately ask where I am taking her for lunch and can I buy her some clothes at Old Navy. Oh well. Please enjoy your children before they hit their teenage years as much as you can!

Anonymous said...

How moving. My own kids turned away from such exhibits unable to take them in for more than a few moments. So your son has been very brave - especially given his personal connection to it all.

Maybe your next foreign trip should be to Germany or Austria? In Vienna many of the pre-war apartment buildings have lists of their jewish occupants posted on memorials by the entrance - so their past is anything but hidden - it is layered into the everyday fabric of the city (though I have no doubt that like most cities there are many 'covert operations' too). My jewish blood is much more heavily diluted than yours (and predates the Holocaust), but I did grow up in a world where so many adults said that the 'only good German is a dead German'. It has been cathartic recently to catch up with modern German culture, history and landscapes and to see my own teenage children forging an entirely different world view. Yes, EJ, they like clothes shopping - but like most teenagers they care passionately about all kinds of other stuff too - turning away from the exhibits - refusing to buy into the museum culture kind of shows that - don't you think?

sorry I have not had time to read all the other great posts - maybe one day ...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Eileen, those shoes are arresting. A friend told me she was keeping all emotion at bay in the museum until her eyes alighted on an elegant shoe in that amalgamation. All of a sudden she imagined that a woman had, at one time, dressed for an evening on the town and found herself in a concentration camp being robbed of her clothing. That individuation brought the tears.

srj, I do admire him for wanting to go to the museum. I admire him for not leaving immediately. He had a very hard time with it, and right now is in the other room reading Maus to wrap his mind further around the event. Thanks, too, for bringing the discussion to a modern Germany that lives with these memories. PS my own Jewish blood is diluted and pre-Holocaust as well (the Jewish part of my family fled Lithuania in the late 1800s and settled in upstate Maine).