Why Should You Visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum?

This article is from the series: The Great Tours — Washington, D.C.

By Richard Kurin, PhD, The Smithsonian

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is a place not just for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, but a place for all people. How does this powerful, sobering testament to man’s inhumanity to man help us consider our responsibilities in protecting the rights of all humankind?

Exterior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located south of the National Mall, on 14th Street, S.W., in Washington, D.C.
(Image: AgnosticPreachersKid/Public domain)

The idea for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began in 1978 with a memorandum created and supported by three people in the Carter administration: Stuart Eizenstat, Mark Siegel, and Ellen Goldstein. 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 an education center.

“We hope,” their report said, “to share our conviction that when war and genocide unleash hatred against any one people or peoples, all are ultimately engulfed in the fire.”

This is a transcript from the video series The Great Tours — Washington, D.C.. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

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

Visitor IDs—Making the Holocaust Personal

Visitor's guide to Holocaust Museum
Visitor’s guide to Holocaust Museum (Image: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division/Public domain)

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 am to 6:30 pm on weekdays, and 10 am to 5:30 pm on weekends; it is open 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 card isn’t the visitor’s ID. It is a passport-sized booklet that tells the true story of a person who lived during the Holocaust—men, women, and children; some Jewish, some not; some who survived, some who didn’t. As you go 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.

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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 Jews singled out for persecution? What forms did this persecution take? What was the response of others, both within Germany and around the world, to this persecution?

You will immediately notice one of the things that makes this museum unique. Because these events took place in modern times, the museum is not only able to exhibit material objects, like propaganda posters or personal possessions, but the curators are 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. These materials are 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.

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The Fourth Floor—Jewish Communities and Totalitarianism

The films and objects on this floor tell two intertwined stories. One of these stories is the story of everyday life among the European Jewish communities before the war. You might notice objects as common as a mezuzah (the talisman found by the front door in Jewish homes) or a menorah (the candle holder used in Hanukkah celebrations) or other ritual objects found in many homes. You might notice objects as personal as family photographs; or a book of folk songs with handwritten notes; or objects as touching (and chilling) as a Steiff teddy bear, beloved of a small child and used by his parents to hide family heirlooms from Nazi looting as his family fled for America.

These personal household items sit alongside objects and films that hint at the coming atrocities, such as a sign from a Dutch merchant’s shop that reads Voor Joden Verboden—‘Jews not welcome’—or cruel, anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews in figurines and prints.

The second of these stories is the story of how totalitarianism takes hold in a nation: the motives of its leaders; the tools of control like propaganda, terrorism, and scapegoating; the conditions that gave rise to nationalism, racism, and ultimately violence from ordinary people against their neighbors.

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German fencer and Olympic champion in Amsterdam 1928: Helene Mayer (1910-1953)
German fencer Helene Meyer won a medal in 1936 Berlin Olympics despite the efforts of Nazis to purge all athletes of Jewish ancestry. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

One of the most important acts of propaganda during this period was the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At least, it was supposed to be. Some Americans and Europeans tried to convince their nations’ athletes to boycott the Berlin Olympics. The boycott failed, but ironically, American participation in the Olympics may have been a double-edged sword for the Nazis. In their attempt to prove so-called Aryan racial superiority, the Nazis had purged all but one athlete of Jewish ancestry from their team: the fencer Helene Meyer. But much to their chagrin, Meyer received a medal.

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It was at these Olympic games where African American track and field star Jesse Owens won four gold medals. The infamous Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made a documentary about the games, called Olympia, which was intended to bolster Nazi racial propaganda. But Riefenstahl’s film instead painted Owens, a non-Aryan, as the pinnacle of athletic achievement and an American hero. It could be argued that the appearance of athletes like Owens at the games was a more effective retort to Nazi ideology than a boycott would have been. 

In the museum, footage like Riefenstahl’s, along with photos and objects from the games, help illustrate how the 1936 Olympics was used as propaganda.

This was also the period of the Nuremberg Race Laws. Between 1933 and 1939, the national, regional, and local governments of Germany passed more than 400 pieces of legislation aimed at removing Jewish citizens from German political and social life, financially crippling Jewish families and Jewish-owned businesses and preventing the practice of the faith. These stories are recounted in the museum through its oral histories collection—recorded interviews with men and women who lived under these laws. These oral histories are displayed in the museum’s small theaters.

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The Third Floor—Ghettos and Concentration Camps

Visiting the next floor, 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 word “ghetto” comes from the name of the Jewish quarter of 16th-century Venice. As in other cities of Europe at the time, the ghetto was the only area of the city in which Jews were allowed to live. It was a sort of prison, walled off from the rest of the city, accessible by a pair of bridges during the daytime, but its residents were locked in at night.

In the Polish ghettos, the severe conditions were taken to an even greater extreme. A few were “open ghettos,” like their predecessors. But most were “closed ghettos”, surrounded by brick walls and barbed wire; their residents were subject to overcrowding, disease, starvation, and forced labor. The Jews who tried to leave were shot. The Warsaw Ghetto alone housed 400,000 people in a 1.3-square-mile area.

Between late 1941 and the summer of 1944, every resident of the 1,000 or so ghettos across Eastern Europe was eventually transported to a concentration camp. The ghetto in Lodz, Poland, was the last to be dissolved, and consequently, a significant number of objects from Lodz have survived and made their way to the museum. They paint a grim picture of how the Nazis exerted control over all aspects of ghetto life, from the Star of David yellow patches residents were forced to wear on their clothing to the “ghetto scrip” they used as currency because the national currency was forbidden to them. Yet hints of ordinary life still peek through: They peek through in the musical instruments, tools, and clothing used by the ghetto’s residents.

Warsaw Ghetto  1941, intersection of Ksawery Lubecki and Gęsia street
Warsaw Ghetto 1941 (Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-134-0780-38 / Cusian, Albert/Public domain)

Residents of the ghettos did occasionally rebel. The largest such uprising was in Warsaw in 1943. At this time, the Warsaw Ghetto had a remnant population of about 60,000 people, down from about 400,000 at its height. A few of the missing had been sent to labor camps, but most, about 265,000 had been sent to the killing center at Treblinka. A few of the remaining residents managed to contact Polish resistance fighters and smuggle in a few weapons. When the S.S. came for the remaining residents in January 1943, a few hundred men fought off their German guards, allowing the rest of the ghetto residents to flee. A few thousand residents were re-captured and sent to the camps, but those who were left in the ghettos were heartened. They began building a network of bunkers and shelters beneath the streets.

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When the Germans returned on Passover Eve, the residents once again fought them off, this time forcing the Germans into retreat. The Germans had no choice but to raze the ghetto, capturing or killing any Jews they found. Though the majority was captured in a few days, pockets of resistance held out for a month.

The museum’s holdings include 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 the museum plays the recorded histories in the theaters of the third floor.

But 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. Visitors can view empty canisters of Zyklon B that were used in mass executions. There is also a cast model of the sign that had been above the Auschwitz gate that reads, ironically and cynically, ARBEIT MACHT FREI—‘Work Makes You Free.’ 

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The Final Floor—Holocaust Atrocities

The final floor of the 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. In Majdanek, Poland, for example, the guards burned all their victim’s bodies in the crematorium in an attempt to cover up the camp’s true purpose. When the Soviet troops arrived to liberate the camp, they found no bodies, just unidentifiable ashes. But the Soviet soldiers also found thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes belonging to the dead. Those shoes, now found at the museum, remain as shocking evidence of the scale of the atrocity. Remember, Majdanek was only one camp out of hundreds.

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 walk—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 was not understood until the camps were liberated. There is some truth to that. The fog of war and the skills of Nazi propaganda experts obscured much of what was happening in the camps. And yet, it was not entirely unexpected. From the news of Kristallnacht to the ghettos in Europe’s greatest cities to the reports of thousands of refugees, the evidence was all around for those who cared to look.

Some people did see, and they 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.

German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz
German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz passed intelligence to Danish resistance which lead to the rescue of 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population. (Image: Bundesarchiv/Public domain)

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. About 20,000 people escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and were hidden by their neighbors. The United States, despite its initial resistance, admitted about 200,000 Jewish, Roma, and other refugees fleeing occupied Europe. French clergy rescued some 12,000 Jewish children. Ordinary French Catholics and Protestants took Jewish children into their villages to protect them from the Nazis and French Nazi sympathizers.

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Temporary Exhibits—Man’s Inhumanity to Man

We have only scratched the surface of what you will find at the United States Holocaust Museum. The description of the permanent exhibition is incomplete, without mentioning the museum’s program of temporary exhibitions. Recent exhibits have included ones that focus on America’s response to the Holocaust and the current human rights and refugee crisis in Syria. Previous exhibits have examined the Killing Fields of Cambodia and other acts of genocide in modern history.

These exhibits provide accounts of man’s inhumanity to man, and how racism and intolerance based on nationality, religion, disability, and more can lead to the extermination of entire groups of people. But the exhibits also chronicle stories of survival and resistance and they demonstrate how forces of good and justice can triumph over unthinkable evil.

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Like many of the museums in Washington D.C., the Holocaust National 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. Or 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 still unknown.

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Reflecting on the Holocaust

There are two more locations in the museum that worth checking out at the end of your 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 their thoughts, impressions, and questions the museum has evoked. Visitors then hang their cards on the wall, with those of thousands of other visitors. You can contribute your thoughts, or simply read the thoughts of others.

These comments can be touching, thought-provoking, occasionally distressing, but overall, they are an important part of the experience. They help visitors to see the exhibits through others’ eyes and to foster mutual understanding.

The second spot to consider visiting at the end of your tour 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.”

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Common Questions About the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Q: What defines a genocide?

genocidal war is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Q: Which camp killed the most during World War II?

Auschwitz had the largest death toll of any concentration camp during World War II, resulting in 1,100,000 estimated deaths.

Q: What exactly is Gestapo?

The Gestapo was the covert police of the Nazi regime, responsible for defeating resistance to the Nazis and capturing Jews. They were the SS.

Q: What was the name of the last concentration camp?

Stutthoff was the last concentration camp. It was outside of Germany and was liberated on May 9, 1945.

This article was updated on July 6, 2020

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