And the lead-like cloud
is not raining life-rain
these are clouds of poisonous gas
which are flying beneath you
those many scarlet cuts
are not flames of lightning
– written by 22-year-old Livia Klein
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
How does one begin to fathom the decimation of a race because, as Albert Einstein once phrased, of a strong fanaticism against the ideals of reason and individual freedom? I was rendered contemplatively silent the moment I entered the industrial-like lift holding my “Identification Card” #2633 for the vicarious journey into the night of the broken glass at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
It was years ago when I first learned of the museum when I read a magazine article. The image of the victims’ shoes never left my mind or the dream of walking through the museum to know and bear witness to an atrocity that must never happen again. That wish was all the more galvanised when a student gushed over Adolf Hitler unabashedly on his handsomeness. I was gobsmacked at her brazen confession of hero-worship. How can she focus on his “pulchritude” and overlook the mayhem that Hitler unleashed upon the world? Hitler’s belief that it was mission of the German Reich to “…preserve the German’s most valuable racial elements and raise them to a dominant position” is unjust and unacceptable. For Hitler and cohorts, the Germans and other Nordic people were the superior races while the Slavs, Roma (gypsies) and blacks were inferior. The other enemies of the state were the Communists, social democrats, trade unionists, liberals, pacifists, homosexuals, lesbians (labelled as social deviants), Czechs, Poles, mentally and physically disabled, freemasons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ranking the enemies of the state, the Jews occupied the bottom of the ladder rung. They were viewed as dangerous by the Nazis because they lived parasitically off other races and weakened them.
My student was ignorant of the three basic principles of Nazi ideology. First, the leader principle highlighted Hitler as the national saviour and the ultimate source of power. Second, people’s community posited that people should sacrifice themselves for the good of the people. And, third, politically reliability equalled anti-Semitism. To enforce the ideology, Joseph Gebbel and his propaganda ministry, according to the explanation board, controlled media; suppressed freedom of speech; conducted endless rallies, parades, speeches, rituals and sham elections; and distributed radio sets (the “people’s receivers”) for free.
The Nazi assault began with the burning of the books. Libraries and bookstores were raided by party officials and members in 30 cities across Germany on May 10, 1933. It wasn’t a spontaneous act, detailed the explanation board, but a calculated, coordinated to purify German culture. More than 25,000 books were burned, which included works by authors such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud (Jewish); Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller (American); and philosophers Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx (German) and Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky (Russian).
Nazi’s racism translated into a public policy of forced sterilization implemented in January 1934, with young children as one of the targets. One explanation board showed a picture of a young gypsy girl smiling. I wasn’t. She was one of the gypsy girls sterilised. It eventually led to a program of euthanasia that saw the physically and mentally handicapped systematically killed.
Visitors to the museum were reminded of the strict no-photo-rule before boarding the lift. After all, the journey was meant to part the veil of ignorance. Besides there is no need for cameras as the images of the train ride to Auschwitz and the other concentration camps, the experiments conducted on the prisoners, the hard labour, the killings, the poems scribbled, the emaciated forms of the survivors etc are ingrained in the mind forever.
I had forgotten I was on holiday as I walked through the museum: Nazi Assault on the fourth level; Final Solution on the third; and Last Chapter on the second. There were no more boxes of collected shoes; the shoes now filled two huge sections of a hall opposite one another, the smell of leather and the past enveloping the area. Suitcases, scissors and spectacles filled other rooms of the exhibition hall as well as a recreated train car. I only peeked into the train car and immediately felt claustrophobic; I imagined the thousands of people crammed into a single car who endured the long ride to the concentration camps without air to breathe, food and water. Which group was fortunate – the ones who passed on en route to the death camps or the ones who survived only to live in fear of not seeing another day or seeing the lives of their loved ones taken away?
Another room simulated the overcrowded living quarters, each bed stacked on top of each other with barely enough space to move around. In another section was a 3D display, enclosed in glass, of the shower of death re-enacted in Schindler’s List. The sculptor took about three-four years (if I remember correctly) to finish the model that detailed the soldiers dropping the gas pellets into columns of the roof of the showers, and the multitude of people at the entrance of the shower: the uncertainty and fear in following the orders of the soldiers; the nervousness in undressing; and, finally, the agonised screams as the noxious gas filled the “shower room”.
One area was reserved for the voices of the survivors: a visitor had to find an empty spot on the benches in the room, pick up one of the booklets and read through it together with the recordings that played on a loop overhead.
Pictures and words plastered the walls. One told of a man who had to suppress all of his feelings as he went about his work: gathering the belongings of those sent to the gas chamber or killed out in the work field. He couldn’t show any emotion because it would spell his death.
When the tour finished, I’d forgotten my hunger and grievances against the universe. My cousin and I walked out of the museum in silence. We had a lot to process. I hadn’t even read my “identification card” until now. It told the story of Eva Braun Levine from Lodz, Poland. She was the second daughter of five children born to Jewish parents who worked for her father who dealt in real estate while studying history at a small local university. In 1939 she married her boyfriend Herman and then the Germans invaded Poland. Eva, her husband and her family lived in the ghetto of Piotrkow Trybunalski until November 1944 when all the women were deported to the Ravensbrueck concentration camp in Germany.
“When we got off the train Nazis ‘examined’ our crotches for hidden valuables. The work I did in the camp was so backbreaking that I lost tissue in my spine,” detailed Eva’s identification card.
I wondered if me/she survived. Bracing myself for the answer, I turned to the last page: “From the German concentration camp, the prisoners were evacuated to the Bergen-Belsen Camp as the Allies advanced. Eva was liberated (there) by the British in April 1945. She moved to the United States in 1950.”