by Meredith Jacobs
Could it really be 20 years?
I was working in the recruiting department of a big D.C. law firm. Somehow I was given a pass to view the new Holocaust Museum before it opened to the public. Since the building I worked in was walking distance to the Mall, I decided to use the pass during my lunch hour. I walked in, received a card with a young woman’s name and nationality and was told I would follow her story as I hit various check points in the museum.
I walked through the dark rooms, my eyes registering recognition rather than shock at the images I had seen for years whenever we learned about the Holocaust. But then I came upon the train car. And I couldn’t breathe.
There was something about it. A cattlecar that transported Jews to the camps. Not a movie version. Not a photograph. The train. And it was so small. Smaller than I imagined. And yet I knew it had been packed, over and over again, with people.
I couldn’t walk through it. I’m certain I had an option to walk around, but I emember feeling like I didn’t. Like I had to walk through to continue.
I tried to back track. To reverse the path and find some other way down to the next level of the museum. But I could not.
I ultimately walked through and quickly came upon a room I remember to be white and filled with light. A respite from the darkness of the history.
I sat on the bench and began to breathe again.
At the time, 20 years ago, the Mall was papered with flyers proclaiming the Holocaust was a lie, fabricated by the Jews. At the time, I had attended a book talk by a noted Holocaust historian who told the audience she had been invited to debate one of these deniers and she had refused. She said you can’t debate fact. I asked her what will happen when there are no more survivors. When no one is left to show the numbers on their arms, numbers like the ones I saw tatooed on Joey and Rena Milner’s mom when I was growing up. What will happen when there is no one left to tell their story?
I am grateful to have met several survivors. I was too young to think to ask Mrs. Milner about her numbers—she was just a mom who made me snacks when I went to play with Joey and Rena. Years later, when I was a young mom, I became involved in the Service Guild—a volunteer organization that has since gone the way of so many others that the women of my generation no longer find time for. One of our events was a brunch for survivors. We were told to bring our children, who were all pre-school aged. I packed my kids in the minivan and drove to pick up the elderly woman I had promised to bring to the brunch. The children asked who we were driving. I told them they were too young to understand, but that one day, I would remind them and explain.
Books and DVDs arrive almost weekly on my desk—new stories about the Holocaust. It’s important for these stories to be told. More important for them to be heard.
A handful remain with me. The television mini-series about the Holocaust that I watched as a child. The Book Thief, that I read because my daughter told me to. The poem about the butterfly.
The Diary of Anne Frank.
One Candle by Eve Bunting.
There are images that kill me. The boxcar. The piles of children’s shoes.
I’ve been back to the museum many times since that day 20 years ago. Most recently with my daughter’s youth group. We went to the Wexner Center and learned about modern day genocides—Darfur, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I learned that the word genocide did not exist before the Holocaust.
One more thing we gave the world.
On April 28 and 29, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will be observing its 20th anniversary. These will be days of rememberance, where we will be asked to uphold the promise of Never Again.