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Grim Reminder

Stirring memory and conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.


Josef Edelstein was born in 1874 in Czechoslovakia. He married in 1912, fought for Austria in World War I, then worked as a salesman in Vienna.

As you ride up in the elevator, you hear an American voice on a radio from 1945 saying there's something up here and he's not quite sure what it is. He is part of an army that liberated a Nazi concentration camp. He and his men have stumbled into one of the worst nightmares in human history.

Piles of bodies. Walking skeletons. The stench of death. The Americans fought their way from the beaches of France to the heart of Germany, but they hadn't seen anything like this.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., begins where the story began: early-1930s Germany. As you move through the exhibits you're watching a horror story to which you know the ending. You see the Nazis consolidate their power and you wish someone would fight them. You see them issue laws of incredible discrimination -- citizenship stripped, businesses taken away, people packed into ghettos, forced sterilization -- and you wish the Jews would just run away before it's too late.

After the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Josef's children fled to Prague, because they thought it would be safer. Josef and his wife were forced to give up their business and move into a one-room apartment.

It's not long before Germany starts making war. An evil streak in the human spirit has bloomed, even been cultivated, and no amount of murder and mayhem can quench its lust. Whenever the German army takes over new territory, it goes to work on the populace: wholesale robbery, mass executions, destroying the Jewish population entirely. The museum features two villages where Jews had lived for hundreds of years. The Nazis wiped them out -- not a single survivor -- in a few weeks.

In 1942 Josef's wife was arrested, and he went to the deportation point to look for her. Together they were shipped to a ghetto. There, they found their daughter, whom they hadn't seen in four years. Soon Alice was scheduled to be sent to a "labor" camp; Josef and his wife volunteered to go, so the family would be together. They were all sent to Auschwitz.

We've all heard about the camps and the Holocaust in general. What is so striking about the museum is the details. It's actually seeing the things you've heard about. In some cases it's on film -- bulldozers pushing piles of corpses into open pits. Sometimes it's the numbers: as many as 1,000 a day going into the gas chambers. One room contains nothing but shoes confiscated from doomed prisoners.

What struck me most was the internal correspondence between the Germans. I guess the Holocaust always occupied some mythical corner of my mind. Not that I doubted its reality, but I tend to forget that under all the lore were real people in real places -- and that the whole thing was planned. There are German memos detailing the Final Solution: One participant in a meeting described everyone relaxing afterwards with cigars and drinks.

In March 1944 Josef died of starvation in Auschwitz.

People react to the Holocaust Museum in many different ways, which is entirely natural. Some go through it in 15 minutes and then head to the next Washington tourist site. Others linger here and there. Yet others seem transfixed, clinging to their partners like they might fall without the support. My reaction was to be spellbound by the combination of evil and efficiency. We have racism in our culture, but even at our worst we didn't set up a complex, well-ordered system to terrorize and murder an entire ethnic group.

I also found that my pacifist self was washed away by a simple thought: Somebody needs to kick these people's asses. As my father said, "There are times when you simply have to fight."

The lingering impression I take away from the museum is utter admiration for the human spirit. The museum has a section devoted to people who aided the Jews or resisted the occupation of their countries. Many of these people faced death as punishment for even hiding a Jew. That humankind can come through such a time with any sense of order and sanity is a testament to our basic good nature.

And yet these things go on today. Most of us, I think, practice some kind of denial about events like the Holocaust: not denial that it happened but that it happened in Europe in the '30s and '40s and that's it. And if you wonder how people could have tolerated it then, ask yourself how we can tolerate today what's happening in Chechnya, the Sudan, or Angola.