Last week, our 12 year-old son brought home a form for us to sign. His sixth grade social studies class was getting ready to study the Holocaust and the teacher wanted to make certain we knew what El Kiddo was in for.
As his father and I looked over the form, El Kiddo’s grandmother and I tried to engage him in conversation regarding what he knew about World War II.
“Do you know about Adolf Hitler?” we asked.
“Oh yeah!” he replied. “River Song was going to kill him!”
Oh boy…everything in our household has either been a Seinfeld or a Doctor Who reference. We tried to explain that Hitler was much more than a character on a British science-fiction show. We told him how he sent millions of Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, and perceived deviants to their deaths. But we knew it was falling on deaf ears because El Kiddo thinks history is boring.
The form suggested a visit to the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond. I knew of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC but I had no idea there was one within 90 minutes of our home. Instead of playing paintball last Saturday, the entire family went to the museum. El Kiddo was miffed but I told him his education is far more important.
The museum is located on Tobacco Row, along the banks of the James River. Various tobacco warehouses are being transformed into loft apartments but the American Tobacco Company houses the museum. Outside is a cattle car. Jews were loaded into the cars and taken to the concentration camps. Inside the car is a metal memorial where one can light a candle in memory of those who lost their lives.
Once inside the museum, the surroundings are hushed. The original wood floors are worn but gorgeous. There are wooden beams overhead and train tracks painted on the floor. It’s well-lit but subdued.
The self-guided tour takes one into a replica of Dachau. I was taken aback by the rows of mannequins in bunks and I left the room in horror. I was able to re-enter once I located my parents. The exhibit explained how prisoners were designated by different color triangles sewn on their uniforms. Even though I knew the prisoners were dummies it was a terrible sight.
We got separated somewhere in the Kristallnacht room. In the display there was a broken storefront and deserted dining room representing the Night of Broken Glass. I made my way to the mocked-up bridge of the SS St. Louis. Even though I’d studied World War II at length my sophomore year of high school, that was almost 30 years ago and I don’t recall ever hearing this story. Although its Jewish passengers obtained legal passports and paperwork necessary to take refuge in Cuba, the Nazi Regime did everything it could keep the passengers from disembarking. The ship tried docking in the United States with no success. It returned to Europe, where some countries welcomed the refugees.
Next stop was the Kovno Ghetto. The museum’s founder and executive director, Jay Ipson, survived the ghetto. There’s a table showing all the items the Germans seized from the Jews: Furs, jewelry, money. A collage showed how a Singer sewing machine was smuggled into the ghetto. Numerous photos depicted life within the ghetto. Within that exhibit, Ipson described his family’s escape to a Polish-Catholic family’s farm. There’s a replica of the hiding place where Ipson and his family hid…13 people trapped in a potato hole for nine months.
I finally caught up with my husband and son at the gas chamber and crematorium. Lining the walls were pictures…stacks of emaciated dead bodies awaiting burial in mass graves or burning. Sadly, by this time I’d become desensitized to the photos. No more tears, just bland dismay.
Towards the end of the tour there’s a Nuremberg Trial courtroom. Fascinating to see but there were warnings of graphic footage posted. I lingered over the displays but never did I look at the footage.
Housed within the museum is a synagogue based on a synagogue in Lithuania. I looked through the doors and admired its essence. However, being a non-theist it didn’t feel right to go in and look around. I can’t explain my exact reasoning why I felt that way.
I’m not certain what our son took away from his own experience at the museum. The word I described my feelings was sobering. “Educational” and “gut-wrenching” seem too trite. It wasn’t pleasant but it’s an experience one that everyone should have. I’m extremely thankful for Jay Ipson, for his vision and strength and his family’s survival. Without it, Richmond wouldn’t have such a valuable resource.