Something has ruminated inside me since my return from Washington DC. It has been hard to capture into words. Thinking back over the many patriotic places I visited during that week, my memories have been accompanied by a faint sense of discomfort and unease. I think I finally understand why.
Our nation's capitol is a place of memorials and museums. From Lincoln's marble seat to Washington's towering obelisk and from the Unknowns' tomb to the eternal flame of the Kennedys, every step you take is steeped in history and patriotism. You ponder heavily the weight of that ultimate sacrifice and wonder what it truly means to be a hero.
With these sentiments, it's easy to leave Washington bathed in the solemn glow of nationalistic pride, but if you are paying attention, you are also confronted with the fallibility of our patriots. Take President Washington as an example: though is said to have abhorred slavery, it was only after his death and in the execution of his will that they were set free. Perhaps this does little to dim the star of a man who tirelessly and selflessly served a fledgling nation, but it does remind us that our heroes are human.
Beyond the disquieting revelations of individual flaws, there are times when the monuments as a whole seem strangely hollow. Though each exists to honor sacrifice, they also serve as an indictment and quiet rebuke of our collective inability to realize the dreams of the fallen. In no place is this indictment more powerful than the United States Holocaust Memorial.
The holocaust memorial, in contrast to the other memorials, exists because of what was not done. The museum exists because we failed -- all of humanity failed -- the Jews, the gypsies, the Poles, the infirm, and countless others under the Nazi regime. It was an atrocity of unspeakable magnitude; so terrible, in fact, that some might even deny it's occurrence. Eisenhower, then leader of the US liberating forces, said:
"The things I saw beggar description...the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda."
Similiar to Eisenhower sentiments, I found it hard to walk through the holocaust museum, but you feel like you must, that you owe it to the victims to remember. And with that remembering, to prevent it from ever happening again.
Through four stark floors of history and artifacts, you watch the retelling of the rise of the Nazis to power and the implementation of Hitler's Final Solution. There were hundreds of us in that exhibit, and never have I seen such a large and diverse group of people act so reverently. Doubtless, most of us were shocked, horrified, and deeply saddened. I wondered, how could we have failed so egregiously at protecting our fellow man? For me, this feeling reached its silent crescendo in the "shoe room" -- which contains nothing but an enormous, ghostly pile of empty shoes. There are hundred and hundreds of them -- each worn by a victim of the holocaust. Here, the gravity of the atrocity reaches full force, leaving you with nothing but somber solemnity.
And yet, just when you are so heavily burdened by the darkness, yearning for even the tiniest bit of redemption for humankind, you come to Yad Vashem, a glimmer of hope in a memorial of suffering and sadness. Yad Vashem is the remembrance authority dedicated not only to the many victims of the Shoah, but also to the few who risked standing up to the Nazi regime and saved a life. They are called the "Righteous Among the Nations" -- those people that helped to save a Jew (many saved hundreds) from the holocaust. Their names are inscribed on a white wall, some 5 feet tall and 15 feet long. These names serve as flicker of humanity; proof that even in the darkest of circumstance and risking the harshest of penalties, some people will do the right thing.
The names are organized by country. I wondered if my family name might be on that wall; my grandparents had survived the Nazi occupation of Holland. So, I traced along the wall, passing Belgium, Britain, Denmark ... and kept looking, looking, looking, seeing names but no country marker. I walked around the back of the wall to see more names but no country. Confused, I walked back around and realized that I wasn't finding the country marker because ALL the names in that section were from the Netherlands. Hundreds and hundreds of names -- names that saved someone's shoes from that heart wrenching collection.
And though still heavy from the ghostly images of liberated concentration camps, emaciated bodies and burned corpses, my heart lifted to see that so many people, from this one very tiny nation, had tried and risked so much to make a difference. And though their contribution might have been small compared to the whole that was lost, I've no doubt that it made all the difference to those that were saved.
And yes, the family name is on the wall. Perhaps we're relatives. Even if we're not, I hope that I would have taken the same risks and made the same sacrifice. The message of the holocaust museum should always resonate with people everywhere. Never Again.