"I have issued the command . . . that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness …. with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women and children…." Adolph Hitler, August 22, 1939, a week prior to the start of World War II.
"The things I saw beggar description . . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were . . . overpowering . . . ." Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 15, 1945, reporting to his superiors having visited a death camp.
If you want to learn more about Hitler’s brutal war against the Jews, the people of Eastern Europe, and all who opposed him, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, is a good place to start.
Now in its 25th year, the museum was built with private contributions on land donated by the federal government near the National Mall. The museum documents Hitler’s rise during the 1920s, his cruelty toward the Jews after his consolidation of power in Germany in 1933, and the Final Solution, the murder of six million Jews and other smaller minorities that ended only after Germany’s total defeat in World War II.
The museum is free, although donations are recommended. It remains a bigger draw than the White House, but no longer requires advanced tickets in the off-season. So, Janet and I made it a priority during our visit to see our son, Chris, last weekend.
The Museum occupies 265,000 square feet within five stories that include an underground gallery for rotating exhibits. Permanent exhibits start on the fourth floor. Arranged chronologically, they lead the visitor back to ground floor and the cavernous Hall of Witnesses.
Prison-like with jutting steel frames, the museum rises with four towers that resemble guard towers at Auschwitz-Treblinka, the death camp near Krakow, Poland, where German death squads murdered more than 1 million Jews. Heading to the fourth floor, we were each handed a document representing a victim of the gas chambers and then herded into an elevator that looked like a railroad boxcar, the kind that transported Jews to the death camps.
On the fourth floor, Hitler’s rise to Germany’s chancellorship despite never receiving a majority of Germany’s votes, begins the permanent exhibits. His campaign platform advocated Germany First, Revenge for Germany’s treatment for losing World War I, and scapegoating the Jewish minority for Germany’s loss. It also expressed disdain for the Slavic people who populate Eastern Europe.
Most of the museum chronicles the systematic effort to annihilate the Jews, after Germany’s conquest of Poland, the Baltic Republics, Hungary and other lands to the East, where large Jewish populations had resided for hundreds of years.
One sees how Jews in the death camps were tattooed, shaved, stripped of their possessions, and either murdered or, if still healthy, worked to death. The hair of murdered Jews fills one exhibit space. Photos of Jewish men, women and children, who made up a typical Jewish village hang on the interior walls of one tower. The slippers of murdered Jewish prisoners fill other rooms.
The exhibitions end with the collapse of the Third Reich and desperate efforts by Germans to demolish the death camps to hide their horrific deeds.
The current exhibition underground traces the American response to the Holocaust. It shows we Americans, along with our wartime allies, lacked compassion. Our state department, where antisemitism flourished, made it more difficult for Jewish refugees to come to America. We cooperated with the British in making Jewish migration to Palestine more difficult. The most likely alternative to escape was death in the concentration camps.
Documents show Eleanor Roosevelt as an exception. She advocated on behalf of Jews, but a shocking film shows aviator Charles Lindbergh preaching America First and expressing shameful bigotry.
A sign at the Museum’s exit says, "Think About What You Saw." Anyone visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum must.
David E. Dix is a former publisher of the Record-Courier.