November 01, 2015
By Harry Markowicz
Every Tuesday, I look forward to going to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to perform a few hours of volunteer work for the Visitor Services department. During the nation’s capital tourist season—March through August—dealing with the sheer volume of visitors is quite challenging. Fortunately, the Tuesday volunteers form a supportive team; we help each other carry the load. I suppose it’s the same on other days. The rest of the year is very different because the relatively smaller number of visitors doesn’t require our constant attention. To make the time go by and also to create a more welcoming environment, we talk with some of the visitors. For example, we inquire where they are from, or whether it’s their first visit to the Museum. We also speak with each other—the other volunteers, staff members, and interns—so we get to know each other better.
On the occasional Tuesdays when one of the two survivor volunteers who work at the Donor and Membership Desk cannot be there, I substitute for the absent one. They showed me how to handle the money, checks, and credit card donations, and also how to fill out the required paper work. The more difficult part of the job is how to respond to the visitors, often school groups who come over to the desk to “talk with a survivor.” I am still learning by observing my colleagues, Louise and Susan, and I am very grateful to them for that. They have years of experience responding to visitors and engaging them in a dialogue, which often leads to an important lesson to be learned, in particular by the young visitors going through the Museum.
I started volunteering in the Museum’s Visitor Services almost five years ago. During that time I have never had an unpleasant encounter with Museum visitors. . . until recently, that is. I was substituting for Susan that day so I was sitting at the Donor and Membership Desk with Louise. Both of us were hidden children: she in Amsterdam, Holland, and I in Brussels, Belgium. The fact that these are adjacent, small western European countries, gives us the opportunity to contrast our personal experiences with what happened in Eastern European countries, as well as pointing out how the Nazi occupation differed between these two similar countries, with extremely distinctive results: close to 60 percent of the Jewish inhabitants of Belgium survived the war, while in Holland it was only around 10 percent, the latter usually thought of as being the more tolerant country.
On that particular Tuesday, we were very busy at the Museum with a steady stream of visitors— especially school groups. Quite a few came over to our desk to talk with us or ask us questions about our experiences during the Holocaust. On a few occasions, we were approached by more than one group so that Louise and I each engaged in dialogue with our own audience of eighth graders. I was focused on my exchange with the students standing closer to me on my right when suddenly I realized that Louise had raised her voice. I turned in her direction to see what was happening just in time to hear a man standing in the back of Louise’s group of young girls stating that we were impostors, pretending to be Holocaust survivors. Addressing the students he said something like: “Are you going to listen to these liars sitting here? They are not old enough to be survivors. They are just pretending….”
Responding to this claim, Louise said, “In this Museum, nobody lies.” The man next pointed at me with his index finger and stated: “This man is not 80 years old.” He then turned around and walked away. The students seemed as stunned as we were. Louise asked them whether he was their teacher; they replied that he was the local guide for their group’s visit in Washington, DC.
Later, after the students had left our desk, Louise and I talked about what had occurred. We agreed that although the situation didn’t feel personally threatening, it made us both very angry. Louise mentioned the possibility that the man was trying to be funny, but that kind of humor is obviously inappropriate in these circumstances.
Two weeks have gone by since this stranger called us impostors. I have been thinking how I could have responded to his accusation, but I have not yet come up with a good response. In fact, for most of my life I did not consider myself a Holocaust survivor, and I still have some reservations about being labeled that way. For many years following the war, a ‘survivor’ was someone who had been in a concentration camp. Like many others I know who survived in hiding as children, I identify more readily as a hidden child.
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