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Holocaust museum lets us remember

September 19, 2000

Holocaust museum lets us remember



WASHINGTON, D.C. - The most stirring moment during my Friday visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was looking at the shoes.

I could feel myself begin to weep.

Hundreds of grayish-colored shoes piled on both sides of a plain, blue room separated by a walkway. All shapes, sizes, kinds. The shoes were actual models of shoes at another Holocaust exhibit.

The shoes were powerful.

The shoes won't let us forget.

Having looked at hundreds of pictures of Jews tortured and eventually killed by the German Nazis - including an actual scale model of a gas chamber at Auschwitz - perhaps the shoes were the final piece in the mosaic that the museum represents.

I've never been to a more powerful museum. It's understandable that the museum doesn't admit children under age 11 and even then, certain film footage displayed is placed in areas with high borders around the televisions so that people with weak stomachs can avoid the most ghastly horrors documented in the multi-floor tour.

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My wife Vicki and I decided to tour the museum, a self-guided tour that allows the tour participant to make up his or her mind about the events leading up to what Adolf Hitler called the "Final Solution," extermination of millions of Jews during World War II.

Tour participants receive a small booklet, labeled "Identification Card," with the emblem of the museum on the front with its logo - "For the dead and the living we must bear witness." Inside the booklet is the story of a real participant of the Holocaust.

Vicki received a booklet about a Hungarian woman, Ilona Karfunkel Kalman, who was gassed at Auschwitz upon her arrival there in June 1944. I received a booklet about a Polish man, David "Dudek" Birnbaum, who survived the concentration camps because of his skills as an electrician. He emigrated to America after the war and was killed in an auto accident in 1969.

The exhibit is told through old newsreels, documents, pictures and even the Voices from Auschwitz, recorded testimony by survivors of the death camp. There is also a separate film, called "Testimony," in which survivors of the Holocaust tell of the poignant and horrifying moments through memories conjured up between glistening eyes and quivering lips.

I was particularly taken by the old newsreels that showed how the message was being told to United States citizens as they gathered at movie houses. When the Nazis ordered a massive burning of books early in the German persecution process, an American newsreel commentator made light of the book burning, calling it a prank by young people.

The exhibit contains a replica of an actual rail car into which hundreds of Jews were jammed for the trips to the death camps. Many didn't make it and died on the journey.

Two powerful sections of the museum detail hundreds of family photographs of people who died in sweeps by the Nazi mobile killing units. The photographs line towering walls while a placard describes just how they were killed.

Innocent in life - just living another day in their small community - and then, quickly, all-too-efficiently exterminated.

We have their shoes as a testament to Hilter's inhumanity.

Chuck Mason is Tri-State editor of The Morning Herald.

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