We Can't Afford to Forget

The Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum is quite an experience, infused with a touch of horrific wonder. One can hardly detach its displays and exhibits from the macabre. Ghastly, grim, morbid, grotesque, hideous, dreadful, loathsome, repugnant, and sickening. Words are not enough.

Yet, the upside of this tale so distant from my reality is hope. Today, the museum has around 90 Holocaust survivors who serve as volunteers, still urging people to love and accept one another.

One of them is Fanny Aizenberg, who was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in one of the notorious and nightmarish freight cars.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Edward Owen

The people deported in sealed freight cars suffered from intense heat in summer, freezing temperatures in winter, and the stench of urine and excrement. Aside from a bucket, there were no provisions for sanitary requirements. Without food or water, many deportees died before the trains reached their destinations.
— United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

Aizenberg was packed into one of these freight cars along with some other 100 people on a three-day journey. Only 40 managed to survive. Once in Auschwitz, she was separated from her mother forever and was selected for medical experiments, later going on the infamous death march before being liberated by the Russians in 1945. You can listen to her story below.

The museum, more than anything, is food for thought on the ways we keep hating one another all over the world. In the U.S., you hear presidential candidates professing to bar certain cultures from entering the U.S. or making far-fetched assumptions about a group of people they have never taken the time to understand.

The thing is, this sort of hate speech is the root of the ghastly and the macabre, as innocent and inane as it may appear. 

On Photos

Shortly after my visit to the Holocaust Museum in July, 2014, Menachem Wecker, a freelancer writing a piece for the Washington Post contacted me about an Instagram photo I'd posted on the "Victim's Shoes" exhibit at the museum.

"Shoes" - At the Holocaust Museum. Pretty sad. #holocaust #museum #dc #washington

A photo posted by Juan David (@juandavid1891i) on

When Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek camps, they discovered huge mounds of shoes, hundreds of thousands of pairs, but very few living prisoners. At the sight of these inanimate witnesses, veteran CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow commented, ‘One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes. But how can you describe several thousand shoes.’
— United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

 

Turns out he was writing a piece about why the museum was reversing its ban on smartphone use on some of its permanent collections. He wanted to know why I'd taken the photo, despite strict guidelines stating that was not allowed at the time.

I told him I believed the policy should be rethought and that what's in the museum is part of history, and people who are not able to come to the exhibit should be able to have access to it.

I visited the museum a second time this fall and was excited to find museum staff encouraging photos. With new technologies, I strongly feel the web, social media, and eventually virtual reality representations of entire museums should be something everyone all over the world should have access to, regardless of what part of the world they live in.

Even if countries disagree on so many levels, a museum should be the place where nations can come together and learn from one another. If we ban access to a museum, we ban access to knowledge and understanding. If we lose knowledge and understanding, we forget.

Today. Particularly today. We can't afford to forget. We can't afford to underestimate. We are complicit of the people we put in power and the answer is not shrugging our shoulders. 

Aizenberg and other Holocaust survivors are proof that hate leads nowhere. For a change, let's love one another.