The Holocaust Museum

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 12 GUIDE

During World War II, the Holocaust took an immense human toll. By the time the Nazis surrendered in May 1945, more than 6 million people had been systematically murdered in the camps by their own government. Find out how the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum came to be.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• The founding of the museum
• The museum’s coverage of the Nazi Party’s rise
• The museum’s coverage of World War II
• The museum’s coverage of the aftermath of the Holocaust

The Founding of the Holocaust Museum

The idea for the museum began in 1978 with a memorandum created and supported by three people in President Jimmy Carter’s administration: Stuart Eizenstat, Mark Siegel, and Ellen Goldstein.

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Based on their recommendations, President Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and asked its members to recommend a suitable memorial. The commission, chaired by novelist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, recommended not a memorial, but a museum and education center.

The museum would, first and foremost, ensure that the memory of what had happened to the Holocaust’s 6 million victims was not lost. Through the work of its educational foundation, it would also seek to understand how this and other acts of genocide happen, in an effort to prevent them in the future.

Visiting the Museum

Interior of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
Admission to the Holocaust Museum is free, but from March through August, a timed entrance ticket is required for the permanent exhibitions.

The museum is located near the National Mall, just a few blocks south of the Washington Monument on 14th Street SW. The museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends. It is open on every day of the year except for the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur and Christmas Day.

Admission to the museum is free, but from March through August, a timed entrance ticket is required for the permanent exhibitions. You can reserve timed tickets online in advance of your visit, or you can pick up same-day timed entrance tickets at the museum itself, starting 15 minutes before opening. Tickets are not required for the research library, the Survivor and Victims Resource Center, the Hall of Remembrance, or temporary exhibits.

Visitors reach the permanent exhibition via the elevators on the first floor, to the left of the main hall as you enter. Before entering the elevator, each visitor receives an ID card. This is a passport-sized booklet that tells the true story of a person who lived through the Holocaust. As you move through the museum, you can compare the person’s story with what you see in the exhibition, putting a human face and personal perspective on the larger historical narrative.

The Museum’s Coverage of the Nazi Party’s Rise

Hitler giving speech to the Nazi party in Germany
The museum’s exhibits immediately confront the driving questions: How and why did Hitler and the Nazis come to power?

The elevators then take visitors to the fourth floor of the museum and the start of the permanent exhibition, covering the years 1933 to 1939. It chronicles the period of the Nazi Party’s rise to power up through the outbreak of World War II.

The exhibits immediately confront the museum’s driving questions: How and why did Hitler and the Nazis come to power? Why were the Jews targeted for persecution? What forms did this persecution take? What was the response of others, both within Germany and around the world, to this persecution?

Because these events took place in modern times, the museum is able to exhibit material objects, like propaganda posters or personal possessions. The curators were also able to use an enormous amount of original newsreel footage, documentary footage, interviews, and home movies, which are displayed on screens throughout the museum. This is yet another way the museum makes the experience of the Holocaust personal and visceral. You are sharing an experience with those who witnessed the Holocaust.

The films and objects tell two intertwined stories. One of these stories is the story of everyday life among the European Jewish communities before the war. The other story is the story of how totalitarianism takes hold in a nation: the motives of its leader; the tools of control like propaganda, terrorism, and scapegoating; and the conditions that gave rise to nationalism, racism, and violence from ordinary people against their neighbors.

The Museum’s Coverage of World War II

World War II Soldiers marching
Much of the museum’s third floor is devoted to life in the concentration camps.

The third floor of the museum covers the period of World War II. The war began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. One of the Nazis’ first acts in occupied Poland was the creation of ghettos—the only area of the city where Jews were allowed to live. Between late 1941 and the summer of 1944, each and every resident of the 1,000 or so ghettos across Eastern Europe was eventually transported to a concentration camp.

Residents of the ghettos did occasionally rebel. The largest such uprising was in Warsaw in 1943. The museum’s holdings include both objects from the Warsaw ghetto and photographs of the uprising, most of them taken by members of the German military. Once again, curators have collected oral histories from Jewish witnesses to the uprising and play them in the theaters on this floor.

Much of this floor is devoted to life in the concentration camps. Visitors can step inside one of the original barracks buildings from the Auschwitz‑Birkenau camp.

The Museum’s Coverage of the Aftermath of the Holocaust

Anne Frank sitting at desk with pencil in hand and open book
The story of Anne Frank is one of the most famous, thanks to the diary she left behind, but it is not the only such story.

The final floor of the museum’s permanent exhibition is called the Last Chapter, and it chronicles the aftermath of the war and Hitler’s fall as well as the lasting legacy of the Holocaust. Many of the images in this part of the exhibition are both horrifying and familiar. As the German military retreated from the Allied advance, the mass murder of imprisoned Jewish people increased. In some camps, the entire population was executed and the buildings destroyed, leaving the Allies to discover the mass graves.

At other camps, the Nazi guards and administrators fled and left the imprisoned behind. When the Soviets reached Auschwitz, the largest of the killing centers, they found it mostly empty. Those prisoners who were able to walk had been force-marched westward to other camps by the Nazis. Those who could not—about 6,000 men, women, and children—were left behind.

The children who survived, as seen in the Soviet military footage and photographs on display at the museum, all had one thing in common. They were all twins, used by Dr. Josef Mengele in his terrible medical experiments. Any other children sent to Auschwitz were usually killed immediately, as the mass graves and the personal belongings the Soviets found at the camp proved.

It is often said that the full scale of the Nazi atrocities were not understood until the camps were liberated. There is some truth to that. However, it was not entirely unexpected, and some people did act to save their friends and neighbors. There were individuals throughout Europe who helped Jewish and other refugees to hide, to obtain false identities, and to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. The story of Anne Frank is probably the most famous, thanks to the diary she left behind, but it is not the only such story.

In Denmark, German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz passed intelligence to the Danish resistance, warning them in 1943 that Denmark’s Jews, about 8,000 people, were about to be deported to the camps. Within two weeks, 7,200 of them were successfully smuggled to neutral Sweden. A few hundred more were successfully hidden within the country. Only 500 Danish Jews were captured and imprisoned either in ghettos or camps, and all but 51 survived their imprisonment. Similar stories can be found throughout Europe and America.

Other Facets of the Museum

This chapter only scratches the surface of what you will find at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum also features a program of temporary exhibitions. Recent exhibits have included ones that focus on America’s response to the Holocaust and on the current human rights and refugee crisis in Syria. Previous exhibits have examined other acts of genocide in modern history.

Like many of the museums in D.C., the Holocaust Memorial Museum offers regular lectures and educational programs. The museum and its resources support the research of historians who study the Holocaust and other acts of genocide, as well as policymakers who are working to understand and prevent future crises.

There are also resources available to the family members of victims and survivors of the Holocaust. The public is invited to research their family history and share their family stories. They may be able to help with the ongoing Remember Me? project, which is attempting to trace 1,100 refugee children who were separated from their families during the Holocaust and whose fates are unknown.

There are two other locations that deserve a visit. First, at the end of the permanent exhibition, there is a room with desks and pens and notecards, where guests are invited to write down the thoughts, impressions, and questions the museum has evoked. Visitors then hang their cards on the wall, with those of thousands of other visitors. They help visitors to see the exhibits through others’ eyes and foster mutual understanding.

The second spot is the Hall of Remembrance. This large, solemn room is used for both public ceremonies and quiet reflection. Guests are invited to light memorial candles and to read the inscription on the eternal flame that is the focal point of the room. It is a passage from the Torah, from the book of Deuteronomy:

Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Learn more about the Remember Me? Project