While other museums celebrate the best of the past, the Holocaust Museum memorializes one of humanity's worst atrocities. The museum, located a short walk from the Washington Monument, is dedicated to informing Americans about the history of the persecution and murder of six million Jews, and millions of other victims, by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945.
It is a memorable confrontation with one of history's most gruesome chapters. Opened in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial has dramatic exhibitions and a beautiful space for telling its appalling story.
The museum's permanent exhibition spans three floors and recounts the rise of Nazism and the stories of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others killed by the Nazis. Passes to enter this exhibition are required from March through August and are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis; there may be a short wait for entry. No passes are required from September to February.
The museum leaves little to the imagination with displays of shoes from Holocaust victims, description of the gas chamber's methods, and a freight train like those used to carry Jews from Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp. It is not uncommon to see visitors moved to tears by the horrific images. Signs will warn adults about images that may be too gruesome for children to see and exhibitions are designed so that children cannot view some images.
At the permanent exhibition's start, visitors are given an "identity card." The card provides biographical information and a photo of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. The card details the individual's life through World War II and his or her fate. Like so much of this museum, the identity card makes the Holocaust feel terrifyingly personal and brutally bureaucratic.
The self-guided tour starts on the fourth floor with the Nazi Assault, 1933-39. This part of the exhibition meticulously chronicles European anti-Semitism, the
Nazi's use of propaganda, and Hitler's rise to power in Germany. Through film footage of Nazi rallies, recordings of Hitler's speeches, Nazi political posters, and newspaper articles, the exhibit immerses the visitor in the sensations and sentiments underlying the Holocaust.
The next part of the exhibition, the Final Solution, 1940-44, deals frankly with a brutal and deeply disturbing subject. With films of horrific medical experiments done to Jewish prisoners and models of death camps, the exhibition details the Nazis' systematic murder of six million Jews. Voices of Auschwitz, a contemporary documentary, puts personal voices behind the mass murders at the Nazi death camps. Survivors recount their harrowing experiences during the Holocaust.
The final chapter of the Holocaust, Aftermath, 1945 to the Present, details the defeat of Germany. Films show British, Russian, and American troops entering the German death camps. The mass graves and starving prisoners are terrifying images to view. The permanent exhibition ends with the octagonal Hall of Remembrance. The hall provides a much-needed space for quiet reflection. The room decorated with 3,000 tiles painted by American schoolchildren is dedicated to the one-and-a-half-million children killed in the Holocaust. The room's eternal flame, like the rest of the museum, is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
On the first floor, Remember the Children: Daniel's Story is a highly engaging exhibition for kids. Designed specifically to tell the story of the Holocaust to children, this exhibition follows one boy and his family through the period. With interactive exhibitions, reproductions of rooms, and Daniel's own words, this exhibition is deeply moving and extremely well done. A changing exhibition space is located on the concourse level.
-- Jeff Hardwick
This heavy-demand museum memorializes an immense tragedy and is necessarily graphic. The three-story permanent exhibition is not appropriate for anyone under 11. Even then, you should be sure your child can deal with exhibits that often deeply disturb adults, recounting as they do the systematic Nazi extermination of six million Jews and millions of others, including up to 1.5 million children. (Parts of the museum, including "Daniel's Story," are suitable for ages 8 and up, and access to them doesn't require the timed-entry tickets needed for the permanent exhibition.)
If you deem your charges ready, head first to "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story," an artfully told narrative of what it was like to be a Jewish child in Germany as the world turned upside down. It opens with a five-minute film composed of a series of photographs from before and during World War II. The narrator is the adult Daniel, who makes it clear that he and his father survived the Holocaust but that his sister and mother perished.
Visitors wend their way through re-creations of Daniel's house, the sounds of laughter and family chatter playing over speakers. Pages from Daniel's diary are mounted in the various rooms, describing the accumulation of slights he endures (his friends won't play with him, he can't go to the pool).
Things gradually worsen (his father's store is destroyed), and the light, almost fairy-tale design of the early parts of the exhibit starts to darken as Daniel's family is sent first to a ghetto -- boarded up windows, tattered suitcases, letters that children can pull down and read -- and then to a concentration camp ("an awful place with barbed wire and guards and hardly any food," says Daniel).
The background sounds now turn to crying, with desperate conversations of women heard. Throughout this exhibit, the Holocaust is described in terms children can understand. "Have you ever been punished for something you didn't do?" the narrator asks in the introductory film. "We were." As you leave the exhibit, you enter a room with phone kiosks playing recorded questions and answers ("What was the Holocaust?" "Who were the Nazis?").
Markers and paper are available for children to write down reactions to the exhibit, some of which are posted. The museum offers a great deal else to see and hear and watch. For children, another fine attraction is the orientation film in the Meyerhoff Theater. While it contains quite a bit on the development and architecture of the museum itself, the 14-minute film also concisely outlines, in a non-graphic way, the rise of the Nazis, the implementation of the Final Solution and the eventual end of the war.
Older children, especially those who can learn at their own pace or are working on homework assignments, might benefit from a visit to the second-floor Wexner Learning Center. There they can call up all sorts of Holocaust-related information using touch-screen computers. Most information is displayed in multimedia form (with music selections, photos and witness interviews) and hot links, so that a child exploring a major subject (such as "Anti-Semitism," "The Camp System" or "Children") can veer off into related topics.
Before you leave, your family should visit the Hall of Remembrance, a somber but light- and candle-filled memorial to Holocaust victims, and the Wall of Remembrance. The tiles create an explosion of color that is at first jarring in this melancholy museum, but the simple images and earnest sentiments on them probably express what your kids will be feeling.
-- John Kelly and Craig Stoltz (Friday, March 9, 2012)