Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Washington D.C. Part Six: A More Sobering Day

On Monday morning, Hannah and I got on the Metro yet again.  She got off one stop before me to go to work and I stepped off the train at the station closest to the Holocaust Museum.

I received an identification card at the beginning of the tour for a Hungarian woman named Terez Spitz Katz.

We all piled into a couple of elevators and headed up to the 4th floor to begin the tour.  The museum is designed to move through history chronologically, beginning with a background of Jewish populations throughout Europe and Hitler's rise to power in Germany.  After World War I, Germany was humiliated and downtrodden.  Following "the War to End All Wars," the country's people endured nearly two decades of political upheaval and poor economic recovery.  When the charismatic and nationalistic Hitler stepped forward promising to restore Germany to its former glory, the people responded with enthusiasm.  They hoped that Hitler would be able to make their humiliation a thing of the past so they could move forward into a more promising future.  The Nazi Party stepped into the limelight, declaring that Germany would only become great if the source of all of their problems was identified and thrown out of their midst.  According to the Nazis, this weakness that needed to be destroyed was a group of people: the Jews.

Hitler and his followers took fierce control of the media, portraying the Jews as evil and the root of all of Germany's shortcomings.  The Nazis took over schools and youth groups to brainwash the nation's children to believe in the basic tenants of Nazism.  Only approved books were allowed to be read.  The curriculum was infused with the idea of the superiority of the Aryan race.  Meanwhile, Jews were forbidden from attending school.  They had to wear the yellow star of David on their clothing so they could be easily identified.  Jewish businesses were boycotted and shut down.  The Gestapo arrested and jailed anyone who disagreed with the Nazi Party's politics, often sending political opponents to concentration camps to never be heard from again.
As the Nazis pushed their way through Europe, the Jews were forced to live in ghettos where the conditions were squalid and cramped.
Jews and others deemed to be harmful to the state were sent to concentration camps.  In the beginning, many of these camps were designed for the prisoners to work.  They lived in horrible conditions and endured back-breaking work.  But it wasn't until the last leg of the "Final Solution" was implemented that the real horrors began.  These concentration camps became death camps where Jews were forced to separate into groups, remove their clothes, and leave their belongings behind, only to be packed into gas chambers to be exterminated and disposed of.  Most of the holocaust victims who suffered this fate were women, children, and the elderly.  Those who survived the first wave of killings lived in horrendous living conditions rank with disease and starvation while having to endure tremendous cruelty from their captors.  Nazi scientists and doctors used the bodies of Jews for science projects.  A survivor recounted a story of a man who was forced to dig a hole then jump in headfirst to be buried alive.  By the end of World War II, nearly two-thirds of all European Jews had been killed as result of the Nazis' reign.

The most powerful part of the museum was a single room that was filled with the shoes of people who lost their lives shortly after relinquishing them.  There were men's dress shoes, women's sandals, children's shoes.  There were also exhibits containing eye glasses, kitchen utensils, prosthetic limbs, etc., further proving the point that these were ordinary people who were just trying to live ordinary lives but, because a small group of people was given too much power, they were forced to endure some of the most horrific things imaginable.  Part of the museum is dedicated to those who fought back against Hitler's regime, those who risked their lives to help those the Nazi's targeted.  I wonder if I would have been brave enough to be one of those people had I been one of their contemporaries.  I hope so...

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