The experience you have at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will be unlike your experiences at other museums in the capital. A visit here will not gladden your heart about men’s and women’s great accomplishments nor impress you with the awesomeness of our universe and the natural world. Rather, the Holocaust Museum’s exhibits document Nazi Germany’s systematic persecution and annihilation of six million Jews and others between 1933 and 1945, and present you with individual stories of both horror and courage in the persecuted people’s struggle to survive. The museum calls itself a “living memorial to the Holocaust,” the idea being for people to visit, confront the evil of which mankind is capable, and leave inspired to face down hatred and inhumanity when they come upon it in the world. A message repeated over and over is this one of Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi, “It happened. Therefore it can happen again. And it can happen everywhere.” Since the museum opened in 1993, more than 35 million visitors have taken home that message, and another: “What you do matters.”
You begin your tour of the permanent exhibit on the first floor, where you pick the identity card of an actual Holocaust victim, whose fate you can learn about in stages at different points in the exhibit. Then you ride the elevator to the fourth floor, where Part I: Nazi Assault, 1933–1939 covers events in Germany, from Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933 to Germany’s invasion of Poland and the official start of World War II in 1939. You learn that anti-Semitism was nothing new, and observe for yourself in newsreels how Germans were bowled over by Hitler’s powers of persuasion and propaganda. Exhibits tell stories of desperation, like the voyage of the St. Louis passenger liner in May 1939, which sailed from Germany to Havana with 900 Jews, but was turned away and returned to Europe.
The middle floor of the permanent exhibit covers the years 1940 to 1945, revealing the horrors of the Nazi machine’s “Final Solution” for the Jews, including deportations, the ghetto experience, and life and death within concentration camps. You listen to survivors tell their stories in taped recordings, and view artifacts such as transport rail cars, reconstructed concentration camp barracks, and photographs of “killing squad” executions. One of the most moving exhibits is the “Tower of Faces,” which contains photographs of the Jewish people who lived in the small Lithuanian town of Eishishok for some 900 years, before the Nazis killed nearly all, in two days in September 1941.
“The Last Chapter,” on the second floor, documents the stories of heroes, like the king of Denmark, who was able to save the lives of 90% of Denmark’s Jewish population. Exhibits also recount the Allies’ liberation of the concentration camps and aftermath events, from Jewish emigration to America and Israel, to the Nuremberg trials. At exhibit’s end is the hour-long film, Testimonies, in which Holocaust survivors tell their stories. The tour finishes in the Hall of Remembrance, a place for meditation and reflection.
The museum also houses a Resource Center for educators, a registry of Holocaust survivors, a library, and archives, available to researchers.
The museum’s permanent exhibit is not recommended for children 11 and under; for older children, it’s advisable to prepare them for what they’ll see.
If you visit in the off-peak months, usually September through February, you should be able to enter the museum without a wait and start your tour. During the busy months, you’ll need a free, timed pass to tour the museum’s permanent collection, which occupies the top three floors of the museum.You can get one of those in advance at the museum's website.
At any time of year, you are welcome to tour the first floor and lower level exhibits, which I recommend. Always on view are Daniel’s Story: Remember the Children, for children eight and older, and the Wall of Remembrance (Children’s Tile Wall), which commemorates the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust. A special exhibit on view through 2018 is “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust,” which as it sounds, explores the role of ordinary citizens in carrying out Nazi policies.
There’s a cafeteria and museum shop on the premises.
- Elise Hartman Ford