Holocaust Commission members have been talking for years about taking a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. One was finally set up for Oct. 30. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, those looking forward to the trip would have to wait a little longer. But the five-week delay did nothing to dampen the spirit of the trip for the more than 30 participants.
Bright and early on Wednesday, Dec. 5, this dedicated group of men and women, both Holocaust Commission members and interested community members, boarded a coach bus at the Simon Family JCC to begin their meaningful day. After a breakfast service of bagels and cream cheese on the bus provided by the Holocaust Commission staff, the group delved into the day’s subject matter by viewing the DVD Nicholas Winton, The Power of Good, the story of the British businessman who singlehandedly masterminded the rescue of 669 children from what was then Czechoslovakia.
Beating traffic and arriving quite early for their 11:30 am appointment with a survivor at the museum, participants took in the exhibits Daniel’s Story, the museum’s exhibit geared toward children eight and older, and, A Dangerous Lie: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a retrospective of the explosive growth (and acceptance as historical fact) of this anti-Semitic text that continues to gain credence all over the world.
Then, the group was treated to the personal testimony of survivor Halina Peabody. This spry 80-year-old took the group back in time to her childhood in Krakow, with her father the dentist and her mother the championship swimmer. She told of their odyssey of her father being sent to Siberia “as a Russian spy,” (which he was not), and her mother taking on false Catholic identities for the two of them and her infant sister, so they could survive as lodgers in a town far from their home, where no one knew them. She spoke to Norfolk survivor Dana Cohen about Dana’s time in the gulags of Russia, comparing it to her father’s experiences. Halina’s immigration to England after the war and her subsequent life in Israel and then the United States, have fueled her dedication to telling her story.
After lunch at the museum’s café, the group may have been somewhat removed, both physically and emotionally, from the subject they were to spend the day wrestling with—the magnitude of the Holocaust. To prepare to tackle the museum’s permanent collection, a heavy task, Andres Abril, Mid- Atlantic regional director of development for the museum addressed the group. In the Hall of Remembrance, he talked about the “birth” of the museum, and how the third architect selected to design the building, (after two others did not make the grade), a survivor himself, incorporated many subtle references to the architecture and experiences of the Holocaust into the building’s details, from railroad motifs throughout the building, to the light fixtures and outlines of the archways mirroring those at Birkenau. These nuances help the visitor transcend modern Washington, D.C., and slip back into the era of the Holocaust, as they go through the museum’s chilling collections.
Many museum visitors might pick up on some of these details, even consciously, but he then took the group deeper into reflection. How, he then asked, did the museum’s founders decide what part of the monstrous tragedy of the Holocaust to focus on? To give further perspective, he asked those assembled, knowing the relatively high knowledge base of the group, what years they thought were pertinent to the study of the Holocaust in terms of creating a museum, and why. The answer, the 12-year window of 1933–45, was examined in a different way than many people consider. The genocide of the Holocaust really occurred full scale in the last four of those years, between 1941 and 1945. To put it bluntly, “by the time you got to Auschwitz, it was all over. But the lessons society needs to learn will come from studying the first eight of those years,” when Jews were marginalized and then victimized. “Someone will never know,” Abril told them, “unless put into that situation, whether he or she will be a victim, a perpetrator, or a bystander.” The museum was designed to address all of these angles.
It was in this context that the Tidewater visitors entered the powerful permanent exhibit, most taking in with them an ID card of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. The two hours they had to absorb what the exhibit has to offer did not come close to being enough for most.
As the group pulled out of Washington, all felt an appreciation for the museum, and the need for its existence. The ride home included moments of somber reflection as well as spirited interaction about the day’s events and revelations. Overall, even with the hurricane delay, all agreed it was a wonderful experience, and one to be repeated soon.
by Elena Barr Baum