For me, the prospect of visiting the Holocaust Museum was one which offered as much anxiety as interest. As someone who considers themselves at least reasonably informed about the historical events which are commemorated in stark reality by the museum, I expected to an emotional and gripping experience. In preparation for the visit, I read slightly into the background of the museum, learning that it was “Designed by architect James Ingo Freed and intended to ensure that the era’s horrors are not forgotten,” (“Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States”) and that the first year of the museum being open to the public was in 1993.
Because I realized before visiting the museum that the “building itself serves as an oppressive structural reminder of the period of the Holocaust” (“Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States”), I experienced very little in the way of immediate emotion or response upon arriving at the museum. Once inside, I began to feel the seriousness of the place immediately, not so much because it evoked, for me, what the experience of an historical person, an actual human being, who had been through a Nazi concentration camp, but because of the obvious toil and research which had gone into creating the museum itself.
There was something very resonant about the attention to detail and the myriad photographs of those victims of the Nazis, together with myriad personal possessions of those who died in the camps which brought out a sense of gravitas. Personally, I am not one of those who favors documentary film-footage as a rule in a museum experience; I often find such films distracting and difficult to process on the spot.
However, the Holocaust museum offers very moving documentary footage which simply makes the rest of the museum experience seem to come alive. While it is impossible to articulate my exact emotional response to the first part of the museum, it is easy enough to articulate the conclusion that I drew immediately: that “holocaust deniers,” every last one of them, should be made to walk through the museum.
The famous “boxcar” exhibit chilled me even though I had obviously been expecting it and the suitcases and uniforms of the victims, especially made me feel a personal sense of connection to the people who had died at the hands of the Nazis. I also found myself caught up in the exhibit which was called “The Science of Race” and which traced the fallacious ideas of the Nazis and their horrific misapplication of scientific principles to promote racism and genocide.
It was impossible to shake the uncertain feeling that this example of racism gone to an extreme end was still no different than any form of racism. With the evidence of what racism is capable of all around me, walking through the exhibits, I wondered how on earth it (meaning racism) could ever truly be stopped. The overall sense of dread and alienation which accumulated in me as I walked through the museum was matched only by my inward resolution to be much more vigilant about hatred and elitism in my own life whether these feelings were racially motivated or not.
The idea that humanity could collectively participate in something as wholeheartedly obscene and cruel as the Holocaust confirmed in me a suspicion that the Nazis were not grotesque monsters, rather they were all too human and the sheer banality of their beliefs and government defeats any concept that they could be either a super-race as Hitler claimed, or a supernally “evil” people as some have claimed. Rather, the Holocaust museum reduces myth to pragmatic reality and in doing so, applies a wound to any visitor which can only be healed by moral enlightenment.