International Holocaust Remembrance Day is today. This is an essay I wrote a few years ago and have amended with fresh memories and impressions of a day I spent in remembrance.
Sometimes, I like to see my world as being black or white, segregated into neat piles. My tidy thinking and tendency to categorize allows me to understand, to make sense of things.
But segregation is unrealistic because there is gray. There is the gray of neutrality, of not being on either end of any spectrum. And there is the passing from one point to the other, like entering a lighted tunnel, passing through the dark that slowly turns to gray, and then receiving the brightness at the end. The gray becomes the necessity to get to the other side, of keeping hope that there will always be a destination, that there will be light at the end.
That day was chilly. The sun’s brightness reflected off new cement underfoot and illuminated the “Righteous Among the Nations” wall making my eyes squint. Gusty winds rattled my bones and ignited goosebumps throughout my limbs. Or had my skin prickled because of so many names on that wall? I turned my back on the welcoming light to search for the building’s entrance. A tall, dark gray wall obscuring the blackness of the door was foreboding.
My expectations of being greeted with illumination, color, pictures, conversation, and perhaps music vanished. Once inside the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois, I was struck by the darkness, the black all around, and the quiet. I found no spirit, no energy, no welcome mat underfoot, nothing to offer me orientation. I was uncomfortable, out of place, disconnected. I paid for a ticket through a glass window defined by dim fluorescence. Once through the metal detectors, I dashed to the comfort of a visitor desk which was long with stark lines and no curves to its design. Delicate small beams of light overhead cast warmth on two women who stood with folded hands and welcomed me. But I still could not escape the darkness and disorientation that followed me, as if I were about to enter a tunnel feeling my way out to the other side.
“The exhibit begins over there,” she said quietly. “Just stand in front of the doors and they’ll open.” Dark-glassed doors slid open to begin my journey through the dark.
I would be reminded of the museum’s existence when I would pass it on my way to and from my home and wonder how the memories of millions of Jews were honored. Perhaps my answer would be closure, knowing they will never be forgotten. And because I questioned if I could fully understand the history and such a wound, a scar, in humanity, I had decided to stop in one day.
The museum is a series of twenty-nine galleries, masterfully detailed through videos, photos, maps, and over five hundred artifacts, 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, and the beginning of the Holocaust. I followed the flow of galleries as the world went to war, anti-Semitism spread, and ghettos were created. And then there were the camps.
It was an emotional difficulty to view telltale artifacts such as German passports and ID cards stamped with a red “J” in glass enclosures or framed because there were so many of them. Reconciling being branded something that is other must have been inexplicable, defying reason, terrifying. Humanity had been slowly stripped away with each piece of story told, through each exhibit. In the dark and the despair, there was no understanding as Jewish life grew harder with discrimination and social barriers. Antisemitism could no longer be a matter of religion or politics. It became a matter of biology, of race.
To be human is to value yourself and your identity, from your hair to your clothes to your first, middle, and last names. No one else shares these things. Your uniqueness is your humanity and when human dignity no longer existed as Jews had been completely stripped of it, you were a no one, a nobody. Jews endured no place, no purpose; they must have felt as a nobody. The self could no longer be defined. The Wannsee Conference removed Jews from their last sources of identification, of belonging: their homes. It is where you are from, your identity. I thought of our connections to where we call home.
Liberation started in 1944, but not before the deaths of six million Jews.
What happens to people after they are liberated? I stood in anticipation and hope in front of a looped video of survivor stories after the liberation. They narrated not only their life after, but also their emotional challenges.
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,” one survivor said. An overwhelming quest for normalcy was most prevalent among the survivors. For others, trying to become Americanized was a struggle. Going to college, finding a job, perhaps starting a business appeared to be attainable goals where a sense of home, connection, and identity could be regained. When one survivor started dreaming, and dreaming in English, he knew he belonged. “The reminders of loss were constant during holidays and when in the presence of children,” one woman said tearfully. The sorrow, the sense of loss of home and identity was still palpable in their voices and on their faces. But so was resilience.
And then there was the light.
The Room of Remembrance was an oasis of strength and nourishment after walking through the thick, cloudy environs of death and torture and, of standing in front of an open boxcar. The Room was round with no particular starting place or ending spot and felt of endless movement. It was a sacred place in homage where beams of bright light cast a warm energy on names inscribed in black letters had found their places. I inhaled deeply and rested in silent prayer on a plain narrow bench, embracing the warmth of the honey-colored wood surrounding me, remembering them, and promising they would never be forgotten.
The Pritzker Hall of Reflection was the last gallery. The light was bright, blue, invigorating like a beacon in the sky summoning me to be free and to reconnect. Lights from memorial candles illuminated several small white squares, each 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 outside the museum 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 a beginning again.