In remembrance of that night beginning November 9, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass.
Sometimes, I like to see my world as being either black or white, segregated into neat piles. My tidy thinking and tendency to categorize allow me to understand, to make sense of things.
But segregation is unrealistic because of the gray. There is the gray of neutrality, of not being on either end of any spectrum. There is the time expended while passing from one point to the other, like entering a lighted tunnel entrance, passing through the dark that slowly turns to gray, and then receiving the brightness. The gray becomes the necessity to get to another side, of keeping hope that there will always be a destination, that there will be light at the end.
It was bright that day, the sun blasting from overhead to the new cement underfoot and against the “Righteous Among the Nations” wall and then back up to me. The blackness of the building’s entrance was obscured by surrounding ashen gray walls. I noticed the stark contrast when the bright sunlight on one side of me met the darkness on the other side. The light and the absence of it forewarned me as to what I was about to pass through. I was stepping into a piece of history kept preserved.
My expectations of being greeted with illumination, color, pictures, conversation, and perhaps music vanished. Once inside, I was struck by the darkness and the quiet. I found no spirit, no energy, no welcome mat underfoot, nothing to offer me a sense of orientation. I was uncomfortable, out of place. I paid for a ticket through a glass window defined by dim fluorescence. The visitor desk was long, with stark lines and barely any curve to its design. Overhead beams of light cast warmth on the two women who welcomed me. But I still could not escape the darkness and disorientation that followed me, as if I were entering a tunnel and had to start feeling my way out to the other side.
After a brief conversation with the women, I was sufficiently oriented to start my journey.
“The exhibit begins over there,” the coifed, reserved woman said quietly. “Just stand in front of the doors and they’ll open.” The absence of light distracted me from noticing any signs of direction. Dark-glassed automatic sliding doors opened to the inside of the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
The museum opened in 2009, just a mile or two from my home. I was reminded of its existence every time I traveled past it on my way to and from my home. I was raised a Catholic, attended Catholic schools through college and took to learning about other religions perhaps more judiciously than mine. But I knew this museum was more than a time capsule of genocide. I wanted to see how the memories of millions of people were being honored. I wanted to understand the historical time that created such a wound in humanity.
According to President Emeritus Sam Harris, “We dreamt of creating a place that would not only serve as a memorial to our families that perished and the millions lost, but also where young minds could learn the terrible dangers of prejudice and hatred.”
The permanent exhibition is a series of twenty-nine galleries, all masterfully detailed through videos, photos, maps, and over five hundred artifacts. It is well crafted, enabling the visitor to learn a piece of history starting with the world shortly before the rise of Nazism. A dramatic display of the November 1938 pogroms, in a back corner, allowed for ample space to experience Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the beginning of the Holocaust. I followed the flow of galleries as the world went to war, anti-Semitism spread, ghettos were created. And then there were the camps.
It was difficult to study every detail nailed in glass enclosures or framed against a dark wall, like German passports and ID cards stamped with a red “J” because there were so many of them. But it was in the details that I saw humanity being slowly stripped away with each piece of story told, through each exhibit. It clearly defied sense and logic. In the dark and the despair, there was no understanding as Jewish life grew harder with discrimination and social barriers. Anti-Semitism could no longer be a matter of religion or politics. It became a matter of biology, of race.
Public humiliation was rampant. Men’s beards were cut on the street. Jews were identified by a badge in coded shapes and color, a number. Human dignity no longer existed as Jews were completely stripped. Nakedness. To be human was to value yourself, your identity, from your hair, to your clothes to your first, middle, and last names. No one else shared these things. Your uniqueness was your humanity.
Layers of Jewish identity were peeled away until the Final Solution, presented at the Wannsee Conference, removed them from their last source of identification, of belonging: their homes. The self could no longer be defined. The extension of oneself was broken.
What is home? There is nothing like feeling at home, knowing you are firmly planted where the earth beneath you will not betray you and shift, causing you to lose your footing and be insecure or unwelcome. There is a connection to where you call home. It is where you are from, your identity.
Liberation started in 1944, but not before the deaths of a total of eleven million people; 6 million of them Jews.
What happens to people after they are liberated?
To be liberated is to be shown that the gates to life are open. Human emotions, like joy and love, are once again there. But so are mourning and sadness.
Where now are the homes? Your home is not where strangers are living or “even your Yiddish existence,” said one survivor.
It is human nature to want a place to belong. Finding firm ground in Israel was the connection for some survivors, a place they could call home. Wherever you found yourself was a new challenge, living day to day while remembering the camps. An overwhelming quest for normalcy was most prevalent among the survivors. For some, trying to become Americanized was a struggle. Going to college, finding a job, perhaps starting a business seemed to be attainable goals where a sense of home, connection, and identity could be regained.
When one survivor starting dreaming, and dreaming in English no less, he knew he belonged.
The reminders of loss were constant during holidays and in the presence of children. Memory could be reclaimed and defended even though emptiness remained. Emptiness was difficult to preserve. It faded and had limits but as long as the value was remembered.
And then there was the light.
The Room of Remembrance was like an oasis of strength and nourishment after walking through the thick, cloudy environs of death and torture. The Room was round, leaving the visitor with a feeling of endless movement, with no particular starting place or ending spot. It was an homage to six million Jews, with representative names of victims finding a place, inscribed in the walls. The light beams were warm and full of color, casting energy on those names in black letters. Sitting on a wood bench that accompanied the walls was to draw in those remembered and to promise them that they would never be forgotten. I inhaled deeply, counter to my shallow breaths as I walked each gallery. I rested in silent prayer, embracing the warmth of the honey-colored wood. And then I moved on.
How fitting that number 29, the Pritzker Hall of Reflection, should be the last gallery. The light here was bright, blue, invigorating like a beacon in the sky, a summons to let go and feel freedom and connectedness among all else that lives. In the windows, the light of a memorial candle, symbolic of life, stood in the middle of each square, with each white box set in a row punctuating the curve of the wall. It was a message of hope.
I indeed witnessed the black and the white beginning with the dichotomy of the building’s exterior and repeating in the interior where black spoke as an ominous beginning – a descent into darkness – to white, liberation and renewal of survivors. And I also traveled through the gray. It was the light at the end that signaled the beginning again. For all those who survived the Holocaust, I hope they found home in the light at the end of their tunnel.