Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Yin & Yang of a weekend trip to Washington, DC

Carol and I traveled to Washington, DC ostensibly to attend a wedding. We had some free time & there were a few sites we both wanted to visit between our social obligations.

On Friday afternoon, in the blazing sun, we walked to the Vietnam Memorial wall. On the way there we ran into a friendly squirrel.
Calling it a wall is sort of a misconception, at least to us. While it is a wall, it is set into the side of a berm, i.e. it was not a free standing wall which we had always imagined it to be. This did not take away from its simple beauty or tragic symbolism. 

As we walked along it in respect of those who were sacrificed, I told Carol that what saddened me most was knowing that 35,000 of those 'names' became eligible for their etching only after the start of peace talks between the United States & the Republic of North Vietnam. 

The two sides first had to first decide on the location for the negotiation, then the shape of the table the negotiators were to sit at & other such important items before getting into the protracted peace talks which where punctuated by extra U.S. bombing runs to make a negotiation point, the suspension of the talks & the return to talks, a dance that went on  for years so everyone could save 'face'.

Saturday morning started with a cholesterol filled breakfast (eggs benedict) & a cooler walk to the National Holocaust Museum. It was crowded, many of the vistors where young. I guess that's a good thing but I couldn't imagine how these kids were going to absorb what they were to read & what they would see.

In the museum lobby, you take an ID card which contains the photo and the story of a person who died in the holocaust. My person was a Polish Jew named Chaim Engel. When the Germans invaded Poland, they sent him to Germany as a slave laborer. In 1940 he was shipped back to Poland but immediately deported to the Sobibor death camp. There a small prisoner revolt took place; Chaim stabbed his overseer (to death) while screaming the name of his father & his mother & others murdered with each thrust of the knife. Chaim escaped into the dense forest where he hid out until the war ended. After living in Europe & Israel, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1957.

At the start, the museum is dark and foreboding. No natural light filters through the steel covered windows.

The tour beings on the forth floor and wends its way down an irregular ramp which takes you through different spaces of exhibits, photos, videos, news reels, clothes, hair, films, objects (large & small) in a time line from the rise of the Nazi Party to the present.

But to give you an inkling of the intensity is to describe traveling to the fourth floor in a crowded industrial-like stainless steel elevator; to me a reflection of the gas chambers that were used to poison groups of un-suspecting prisoners. At some level I felt some relief when the doors opened on the fourth floor.

The story of the Jew's descent into hell begins with Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) and continues as the race laws were enacted, destroying Jewish life & dignity bit by bit before destroying bodies and minds. Then came the camp experience told by survivors via film & audio recordings. Next the liberation as seen by the troops and here I have to pause for a moment to describe one video that impacted me deeply but I didn't know it until later when it hit me like what I imagine PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) episode must be like. 

When the allies reached Auschwitz & Bergen-Belsen & other camps, the Nazis had not had enough time to destroy all the 'evidence' of their atrocities so the allied soldiers found piles of dead bodes which had not yet been burned along with mountains of shoes & hair, and brushes & spoons. Oh yes, there were the odd skeletal survivors & one can only marvel at the strength of the body to survive such horrors. 

To avoid disease, the allied army was tasked with buring the piled dead bodies in mass graves. This was accomplished using bulldozers so there I stood watching a video of these bulldozers pushing piles of emaciated corpses into a mass grave & covering them with dirt. 

Then came the story of how no one would accept the refugees from these camps who had nothing, some left without their dignity nor a shred of clothing to hide their bodies. Not the United States, no country really, so Jewish organizations set up camps for these people to heal & to get organized before moving on.

We walked through narrow hallways with photos from ceiling to floor on both sides of people who had lived in the shtetls (villages) before the war, the names of these shtetls engraved in glass to be glanced at as we moved along. Then the names of the inhabitants of the shtetls also etched in glass. Some light could now be seen as we approached the end of this tragic journey. 

But just before we reached the first floor, there was a vast bright and almost empty room save some simple stone benches & an eternal flame. There were only a very few people in there. 

It was the remembrance room where people could sit and meditate, to think about what they had just seen & heard, to think about relatives or friends, or friends of friends, or relatives of friends, or period stories read & to consider some of the more recent ethnic cleansing in Europe and Africa. 

It reminded me of the a room in the Jersalem Halacoust Museum -- a room of eternal flames -- a number of them placed on the floor below a low, wooden, viewing balcony, each flame representing a remembrance of the thousands of Jews lost in each country conquered by the Nazi war machine. 

I started to enter the Washington Holocaust remembrance room & felt a sudden need to stop as though a strong hand was in front of me, preventing me from entering. Mind you, this was all in nano seconds. But I turned away overwhelmed by an enormous emotion, a sorrow, so huge that it left me with the greatest urge to burst into tears but I managed to keep myself together. Carol must have seen something on my face & asked if I was all right. I couldn't talk. I could only shake my head. 

Outside we sat on a stone bench, watched children lined up waiting for their tour to begin, and talked about other things: the weather, what we would do next, the back timing necessary to get to the chuch on time. After a few minutes we walked back to the hotel. 

Four thirty in the afternoon found us at the little yellow church near the White House for a lovely wedding ceremony followed by cocktails, dinner, speeches & dancing. 

The date was May 22rd & it wasn't until many hours later that I flashed on my 97 year old father being buried about six weeks before, his coffin in the hole in the ground; everyone throwing shovels full of earth into the hole to cover the coffin which contained his body, emaciated by old age. He would have been 98 on May 23rd.