By Susan Warsinger
I did not want to get up that morning because I knew it was very cold outside. I would have a long walk from the Metro to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The hike would entail walking briskly down Independence Avenue, where the wind would surely blow in my face and I would be frozen by the time I got to the Raoul Wallenberg Place entrance of the Museum. I got up anyway because I had committed myself to being one of the tour guides for the 93 members of the Frederick Presbyterian Church who were arriving at the Museum at 9 a.m. that day. Luke, from Visitor Services, had e-mailed me and asked that I participate because he knew me. He had introduced me when I gave presentations to visitors in the Wexner Center, and we had become friends. It was his mother’s church and he was excited to have a survivor tour guide.
When I got there, the congregation was already viewing the film on antisemitism in the Helena Rubinstein auditorium. When it ended, we walked up the staircase to the Hall of Witness. Luke randomly divided the group so that each tour guide had ten to 12 people. My group consisted of adults and some teenagers. During the past two years, I had become accustomed to touring only law enforcement officers visiting as part of the Museum’s leadership training programs, so I knew that I had to adjust my tour to meet the needs of all my participants. We talked about the architecture of this monumental four-story atrium. The visitors told me it was different from any other museum they had ever seen. They realized that they were surrounded by red brick walls and dark gray steel structures, and they told me that it reminded them of a railroad station, a factory, or a prison of some kind. I asked them what they thought about the wide staircase that leads up to the second floor, ending at a brick gate whose arch resonates the gate to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As most visitors usually do, someone in my group whispered, “It looks like a railroad track.” They commented on the hall’s glass roof, which on that day revealed a bleak winter sky. I asked them to look at the lamps protruding from the brick walls and told them that we would encounter similar ones later in the Permanent Exhibition. We talked about the lit line that cuts through the hall’s marble floor and the askew steel forms hovering over the platform on the east side and considered the symbolism of these features. I wanted to talk more about the steel desk where our Visitor Services staff help thousands of people from all over the world, and the steel donor desk where Holocaust survivors talk about their experiences. However, I knew that we only had about two and a half hours for our tour. Therefore, with great reluctance, we left this grand hall that speaks for itself so emotionally. I hoped that our 12-year narrative journey through the Holocaust would be a good learning experience for everybody.
While we were waiting for the elevator to take us to the Permanent Exhibition, they individually reviewed the identity cards that Luke had distributed to them earlier. I wanted to make sure that they were familiar with their companion’s name and the city and country from which he or she came. I also wanted to make sure that they knew that the exhibition starts with 1945, the end of the story, and then we would gradually step around the corner and begin in 1933.
When we arrived on the fourth floor, there was a hush as we entered the exhibition because on the right there is a gray steel wall in which the words “THE HOLOCAUST” are gouged deep. Next to it is a disturbing panorama of the American soldiers looking at burnt bodies on a railroad track. The expressions on the faces of my group were not much different than those of the soldiers.
The fourth floor deals with the rise of the Nazis, which includes the period from 1933 to 1939. I like to spend the most time on this floor because people need to understand how Hitler and his party rose to power, how the Nazis gradually accomplished their hold on the society, and how antisemitism led to the systematic murder of millions of people. I think it is important that our visitors learn that we cannot be blind when we see injustice occurring in the world and that we learn what prejudice and hatred can do to people.
Through questions and answers we found out how Hitler became appointed the chancellor of Germany in 1933 and how terror began as soon as the Nazis came into power. We talked about people losing their rights and privileges, about the boycotting of businesses, and the burning of books by Jewish authors and other political opponents. We talked about the propaganda used on teenagers and even young children when they were read picture books like Der Giftpilz, part of the elementary school curriculum that taught that Jews were poisoned mushrooms. I told them about the free radios that every household got from the government that played only one station. My group understood that the Hollerith machine was a forerunner of the computer and that IBM sold this machine to the Nazis. Perhaps IBM did not know that it was going to be used to sort information about the Jews that were living in Germany. We talked about how the Nazis used race as a “science” and how they conducted tests to show who was a true “Aryan” and which “race” was the purest on a hierarchy of people. We had a group discussion near the display that shows how Jews went from citizens to outcasts. My visitors were shocked at all the signs that were in front of theaters, hospitals, parks, concert halls, sports events, and most public places stating that Jews were not allowed. I asked them what they thought the response of the Jewish community was to all this antisemitism. Most everybody thought that the Jews would want to leave. However, some members of the group said that they believed some Jews wanted to stay and wait until the Nazis were not in power anymore. Other ideas that came up were fighting back, hiding, or changing from being Jewish to another religion. Some said that they did not know what the Jews would do. I thought they summed up the situation for the Jews in Germany at that time pretty well.
I taught them about the Evian conference that was held in Evian, France, and how all the countries that attended, except for the Dominican Republic, would not raise their immigration quotas so that the Jews could emigrate from Germany. We went over the New York Times editorial cartoon that explained the result of the Evian conference.
It was not until we got to the Torahs that are strewn on the blue carpet and covered in glass that I revealed to my group that I was born in Germany and was a young girl when the Nazis desecrated these scrolls during Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938. As we were standing at this “Night of Broken Glass” display and I informed them about my experience on that night, many other visitors to the Museum moved over to us to listen. This usually happens when I give my tour and it was no different on that day. I felt honored to have them join us.
After discussing the voyage of the St. Louis, we made our way to the “Murder of the Handicapped” display, which describes the first systematic killing, which occurred between 1939 and 1941. The Nazis killed 70,000 people because they believed they were a drain to their society.
I asked the group to take out their ID cards as we crossed the narrow bridge that holds the names of lost communities on its glass walls. Their task was to find the town where their companion was born. Usually visitors become excited when they find it and it was no different on that day. This activity usually helps me get to know some of the people in my group, and I found out that the man with the windbreaker and blue jeans was the pastor of their church. There were two teenagers, a boy and a girl, whose attention to each other prevented them from participating in the group. At one point I found the boy standing on the bridge, with his hands holding the banister, looking down into the Hall of Witness. I went over to him and asked him what he was thinking. He replied that he felt like he was a guard looking down into a prison. I then proceeded to tell him that Chief Charles Ramsey, who was then the head of the Metropolitan Police, sent his lieutenants to the Museum on the same tour that we were taking. I told him about observing one of the officers standing there in her uniform with her gun in her pocket, holding the railing in her hand just like he was. He was surprised and, I think, pleased when I told him that she had said the same thing as he did. I knew then that I finally had his attention and that he would, if not verbally, mentally involve himself in the tour. I thought that I could get responsiveness from the girl a little later.
We proceeded and talked about the American responses to what was happening in Europe. I recognized that I was taking too long on the fourth floor, so we continued down to the third floor white lounge and sat among Ellsworth Kelly’s abstract art, and I prepared them for the “Final Solution.” I found out what they knew about the ghettos and the concentration camps and filled in what they needed to know. When they were ready, we began, again, on our journey.
It is always very quiet on the third floor. People are so moved and emotionally drained that they do not want to speak. I chose one of the ladies in my group to read the caption above the shoes that were not burned in the crematorium and there was utter silence. We studied the mural of the electrical wire fence around the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, and they recognized the lamps on the high posts that held the wire together. They were similar to the lamps that we had seen when we first started our tour in the Hall of Witness. I was pleased that they remembered. I had found out the name of the teenage girl, and I called her by her name and asked her to look at the photograph of the women who had just arrived at the camp. She was surprised and delighted that I had singled her out. She looked at the photo carefully and explained that all the women’s hair had been shorn. She felt very important when I asked her to read the caption in the next display, which made clear how the Nazis used the hair. I realized that I had met my challenge when I got the two teenagers involved and they finally allowed the Museum to speak to them.
As we moved on to the wall where there are two very moving paragraphs from Elie Wiesel’s book Night, bordered by two posts from the fence of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I invited the pastor to read them to us. He started out with a strong melodious voice. However, as he read, “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever,” his voice started to quiver and he was crying by the time he got to the part “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust. Never shall I forget these things even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.” I knew that I had to console the leader of his church somehow. I approached him and gently put my arm around him and told him that I understood how he felt and that neither one of us could change the past. It seemed to comfort him and he said, “Thank you.” It was a most memorable moment for all of us.
We only had 20 minutes left before I had to take them back to the Rubinstein auditorium. This always happens, and then we have to hurry through the second floor, where we talk about rescue and resistance. So we did the best we could conversing about the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and some of the other rescuers who are listed on the white metal wall. We also looked at the Danish ship that took Jews across the channel to neutral Sweden.
I also wanted to take them to the Hall of Remembrance so that they could light a candle for their companion on their ID card or any other victim who was murdered. I wanted them to experience this awe-inspiring, monumental, cathedral-like, six-sided space that was so full of symbolism.
We were a little late getting back to the auditorium. Luke and some of the other people in the group were waiting for us. I bid goodbye to my group and when they clapped I was embarrassed but secretly enjoyed their appreciation. I did feel that the group had learned that one cannot be a bystander to injustice. I hoped that they understood their role and responsibility in society and embraced the value that all people are equal. I also hoped that they realized that never again can we allow the world to stand by and do nothing, like during the Holocaust.
People ask me how I can do this over and over again. I do not know whether teaching people that we must not let injustice happen when we see it and that we must do something about it is enough. I do not know if it is a vaccine against future horrors. I do know that I feel morally responsible and that it is my obligation to be involved even though I might make only a small contribution. I began my association with the Museum because I thought I had something to contribute. I soon came to realize how much I was gaining and continue to gain through my involvement. I also know that working for the Museum in the Education Department has helped me feel connected to my past, helped me define who I am, helped me confront my own experiences, and helped me move forward.
©2013, Susan Warsinger. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.