The Holocaust altered the course of history and humanity. Destruction, tragedy, annihilation—it was an attempt to bring an entire race to extinction. The Holocaust was an era where the ugliest of humanity was on parade.
But in the darkness of cellars and the dingiest of tents, survivors and heroes emerged. However, their verbal accounts dwindle daily. Projects like Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation are designed to keep their stories alive. Places like the U.S. Holocaust Museum serve as monuments and tributes.
When I was a senior at NYU, I wrote an article for my magazine article class called “Three Years Later: Survivors Reflect on the Museum.” I had the privilege of interviewing several Holocaust survivors in writing this piece; like stones atop a gravestone, their stories rest on my heart.
The class assignment mandated an attempt at getting the article published. I was successful; it was published in a publication called Together, which was circulated to many Holocaust survivors. Then the article went hiding for fourteen years and recently made a surprise appearance from the archives of my father’s Staten Island garage. Aside from the reference to how long the museum had been open and the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister, the article is still relevant and accurate.
So here is a blast from my college writing past:
“Three Years Later, Survivors Reflect on the Museum”
By Galina Nemirovsky
The steel doors are framed by thick bolts and when they slam shut with a loud thud, everyone in the elevator gasps for air. The passengers fall silent as we ascend. Anticipating something brutal, I plant my feet firmly on the floor; if I brace myself, maybe it will lessen the shock.
Suddenly, a black and white image flickers to life on the television monitor above my head. I look up to see stock footage of a World War II solider standing in front of a liberated concentration camp fifty years ago. He gives the warning: what he saw—and what I am about to see—is like nothing I have ever seen in my life.
The elevator doors open on the permanent exhibition of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The display winds its way down—not unlike Dante’s Inferno. I walk through the stories of hell told by those who lived through it.
Like every visitor, I am given a “passport” upon entry that I will carry throughout my visit. It is an identification card with the photograph and life story of someone who lived through the Holocaust. The victim—or survivor—may have been your age, they may have looked like you, or perhaps, like in my case, they shared your name. I was given the life story of Gisha Galina Bursztyn, born in Pultusk, Poland in 1877. She married a baker and bore eight children; she will serve as my silent guide through the museum.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will be commemorating its third anniversary this April. So far, over five million visitors have toured the museum with their own passport guides; they have come here to bear witness—“for the dead and the living.”
Although the initial publicity around the museum’s opening has died down, the museum’s focus on remembrance and contemplation requires it to remain in the public eye to fulfill its mission. More than just a collection of artifacts or the preservation of history, it was intended as an educational instrument. It is not enough to be a national memorial to the 12 million murdered if the lessons of history it imparts are not learned.
We live in an era when the term Nazi is being trivialized by overuse and an Israeli Prime minister is mocked as an SS trouper by right-wingers just before he is assassinated. Although the museum estimates 75 percent of the visitors to be non-Jewish, the museum’s educational mission is now more urgent than ever.
The museum’s permanent exhibit takes you through the story of the Jews targeted for annihilation in a systematic state-sponsored genocide. It also documents the fate of other Nazi victims: Gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political and religions dissidents and Soviet Prisoners of War. Throughout the museum, artifacts, oral histories, documentaries, and photographs tell the story of the Holocaust, from the Nazi rise to power to the “final solution.”
In the death camps—and on their way to the gas chambers—the victims were forced into isolation from their entire world. It was their last wish that the world know what they went through. A direct verbal account is the only way that the truth—and the accuracy of the terror—can be conveyed.
Nesse Godin, a Holocaust survivor, remembers:
“‘Maybe you young girls will survive,’ they told us. ‘Promise us you will make them remember. Don’t let them forget. Zieg der verld (Tell the world)’, they cried.”
Godin was thirteen in June 1941 when Germans marched into Lithuania. Soldiers rounded up Jewish men and boys to “clean up war damage.” They were taken from their native town of Siauliai and taken deep into the forest. There they were ordered to strip under gunpoint. Then they were forced to dig their own graves. Finally they were shot. Farmers nearby said that the ground shook from the sound of bullets and falling bodies. The rest of the Jews were herded into a few blocks and that became the Siauliai Ghetto. In 1944, the Ghetto was emptied. Godin survived several labor camps and a forced march. In 1945, she was liberated by the advancing Soviet army. She was seventeen years old.
“What kind of criminal was I? I was one of the lucky ones; I survived. So when I look at the people at the museum, I remember the cries of ‘Zieg der verld’ and I see the world,” says Godin, 67, a museum volunteer. We need this museum. It preserves history and it teaches. Being memorialized is not enough. We cannot bring back the dead.”
Death preoccupies my thoughts as I stare at the blue-and-white striped prisoner uniforms hanging limply in a two-story column in front of me. They are frayed, torn, tattered, missing buttons. I recognize this uniform on thousands of emaciated bodies in the black and white photographs surrounding me. I see a gray-haired, short man two feet away from me; he has a tear rolling down his face. I wonder if he wore one of those uniforms. The air feels thicker; each breath is harder to take.
Alfred Lipson was a teenager when he wore those uniforms in Auschwitz and Dachau. Today he is the director of The Holocaust Resource Center and the Archives of Queens College and a strong believer in the power of the Museum. He is also the director of Together, a newspaper put out by The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
“The Museum is not for us [Jewish people]—it is for everyone else. It is for young people. Some survivors will complain. They want their little town shown on the huge map of the world. But there were too many little towns. The Museum is for the teachers and their students. They will learn from it and go on to want to learn more about the Holocaust. I am very happy that 80 percent of the Museum’s visitors have been non-Jewish. It has been more successful than we ever hoped. If the memory is not retained, it will happen again.”
Before the Holocaust, there were nine million Jews in Continental Europe; within a dozen years, two-thirds of European Jews had perished. You watch the video footage from the television monitors above and stare deeply into the eyes of the Holocaust victims who are captured on the black and white film. All the eyes convey signals of death; even the faintest glimmer of life was quickly shattered by a Nazi’s boot.
I gaze at the display of a Nazi uniform. The brown assaults my eyes, but what sears all my senses are the red armbands with their piercing black swastikas. I picture that uniform from the view of a concentration camp victim, lying on the floor, being stomped on by those tall, black, powerful boots.
I am just a visitor to the museum and will probably never understand. Not even the most imaginative description of the Holocaust can truly reflect the horror and the carefully planned savagery. No account can re-enact the emotions of the victims – and the survivors. And still, even survivors who emphasize the inability of any narrative to fully portray their suffering, even they want the story to be told.
Ann Shore is the President of the Hidden Child Foundation, an organization within the Anti-Defamation League. Children who hid their Jewish identities to survive the war comprise this 6,000-member organization. Shore was twelve years old in 1942 when the police in Zabno stuck a gun to her and asked her where her father was. She told them she didn’t know. They ran to the basement, where he was hiding, and shot him dead. Shore, her mother, and sister fled to a farming village and hid in a small farm until the end of the war.
“The museum is very meaningful to the Holocaust survivors,” Shore says. “We feel deeply moved by it because it’s our lives they’re showing. But the museum is not for us. We are the story. The museum transcends the story.”
“The museum has heightened awareness of millions of people,” Shore says. “For many people, the Holocaust is an ancient historical event. By going to the museum, you realize it happened in this century. The museum adds another dimension to people’s lives—it’s such a powerful message to the world. After leaving, the awareness you have gained will contribute to the mosaic of who you are.”
A glass bridge connects one floor of the museum to another. The glass that surrounds me is etched with names of Holocaust victims, as well as entire towns and cities that were obliterated. This is the only section of the exhibit that allows you to see outside light. You can also see the bare metal infrastructure that holds up the suspended corridors with the ominous steel bolts. From this angle, I can see one of the towers of the museum; it resembles the smokestack of a crematorium. The walls of my mind feel like they are closing in on me.
“Some people say the museum is too claustrophobic,” Godin says. “But that is done purposely. They want you to feel right away what it’s like at the camp; we didn’t know where to go. It was crowded.”
I come to a three-story tower of the photographs taken between the years 1890-1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania. While alone the photographs are of individuals, together they depict a vibrant Jewish community, which existed for 900 years. In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village—and within two days, they massacred the entire Jewish population.
I stare into the eyes of these people and for the first time in a long while, I see life.
There is a family photo—everyone is smiling; the father seems proud. Their table is adorned by rolls and wines and smiles; a depiction of life before the war. A mother and her young son sit on a hammock together. Two grandmothers are photographed wearing polka-dotted dresses and holding canvas bags. Another pictures reveals twin sisters with matching bows in their hair.
The installation is called the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. A shtetl was one of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe before the war. These pictures were collected by Professor Yaffa Eliach. She wanted to bring this one town, where she spent her early childhood years, back to life.
She was four years old when the killing began. “I realized that Jews died a double death,” Eliach says. “The first was the horrible murder by the Nazis and the second was that their memory was being obliterated. I wanted to rescue this one town from oblivion. I was determined that these Jews would not be remembered only as victims. When I stood on the massive grave in Eishishok, I saw it not as skulls and bones but as people begging to be remembered the way they were.”
Eliach’s exhibit in the museum aims to give the murdered people back their faces and their identities. “I want people to go away from the museum and think. Not just about the emotional reaction, but I want them to think about preserving democracy and what happens when democracy fails. I want people to make a commitment to safeguard democracy. I want them to walk out to the streets of Washington with a message, with knowledge, and hopefully, encouraged to think.”
As the exhibition continues, I get an update on my passport guide. I learn that Mrs. Bursztyn was living in Warsaw when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Mrs. Bursztyn was now forced to live inside the Warsaw Ghetto. In April 1942, her husband was killed. There months later, she was rousted from her bunker, marched several blocks to an assembly point and herded onto a boxcar.
As I walk on replicated ghetto cobblestones, I imagine Mrs. Bursztyn walking with her children here.
I come upon a railroad car that has the stench of hell. As I walk through the boxcar, it smells like what I’d expect death to smell like. They used to pile 100 people in here and yet I feel cramped alone. There are two tiny slots on either side of the car that function as air holes. There are scratch marks on the wooden walls. I envision people trying to crawl their way out and get claustrophobic.
I enter another room that is filled with shoes from wall to wall. They are from the victims of the Majdanek Concentration Camp hear Lubin, Poland. This room is specially ventilated; it is colder. A chill goes down my back as I inhale the smell of withered leather. I look around at a thousand shades of gray and brown that used to be a rainbow of colors. I spot a set of children’s shoes and imagine they were pink. I see a tattered leather bow and can’t imagine the tiny foot the shoe was meant to fit. I envision a little girl … and quickly stop the image.
When the museum opened in April 1993, the ones who lived through the horror could finally tell their stories to the world.
“We are the last survivors to tell our story and you are the last ones to hear it,” Shore says. “Just remember that so much more is gained by love than by hate. Because hate can become self destructive.”
The museum’s concerted effort is to educate children. Godin speaks to students in inner city schools in Washington D.C. She tells them:
“You wonderful people, look at each other. Don’t see a religion or a color. See a person. be a little kinder, be a better human being. Treat each other a little better. Learn to tolerate each other and live.”
My final stop is the Hall of Remembrance, a hexagon-shaped, well-lit chamber on the first floor.
I light seven candles, one for each of the six million Jews annihilated—and one for Mrs. Burszytn, who was gassed in Treblinka Extermination camp in 1942. I hope I can preserve the legacy. We must shoulder the burden of never letting this happen again.