At the Holocaust Museum, treading quietly through the unspeakable


Visitors to the Museum pass under this gate, a cast taken from the original entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, inscribed with the ironic phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free). (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
August 24, 2012

An occasional series about the arts in Washington and the visitors who admire it

They walk in and out in silence — wearing flip-flops, sneakers, the comfortable soles of summer — grasping the identification cards of victims and survivors.

Voices, lowered. Faces, somber. Children knowing it’s no time for whining.

The identifying quality of the American tourist — irritating enthusiasm— is absent inside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Washington museum that memorializes both victims and artifacts.

The idle chatter of the National Gallery or the National Museum of Natural History is rarely heard in these haunting halls. Choked emotion is mostly invisible until the tourists confront the museum’s final crescendo.


Front view of the railcar on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Edward Owen, courtesy USHMM Photo Archives)

The shoes.

Still intact, perfectly formed, the remnants of lives piled one on top of the other.

“I never really understood why people come here from all over the world to see the shoes,” said Peter, an older gentleman with a neatly trimmed beard and disarming smile. Peter is a volunteer wearing a crimson blazer and khaki slacks. Over 400 volunteers, 74 of whom are Holocaust survivors, are trained to answer questions, to offer context and stories. So Peter, who introduces himself to visitors by his first name only, makes conversation with those who aren’t sure what to say.

“For one thing, it’s one of the few exhibits you can smell,” he says of the faint, rubber-tinged fumes that become more nauseating the longer you stand in the room.

“But then, one day, I looked down and saw those baby shoes, and it made sense,” he says, pointing to the tiny artifacts. “That’s when I thought, ‘A mother was carrying that child on the train.’ It then made sense to me why so many people want to see this.”

Tourists nod in agreement. The shoes say more than words ever could.

When the Holocaust Memorial Museum first opened in 1993, culture and art critics asked lofty, piercing questions about it, the kind that critics always pose about memorials with multiple purposes. They spoke of art commissions. The architecture. The dual mission of a museum-memorial.

But almost 20 years later, these are minor questions for the museum’s 1.7 million annual visitors. Instead, together, tourists experience an ordered timeline that leads them through a history of incomprehensible evil.

Which is why memorial trumps museum. Visitors act with the reverence usually given to sacred ground, witnessing the exhibitions alone with their thoughts. Tourists study the victims’ shoes, remnants that denote age, gender and taste, but little more.

“The 4,000 shoes on display are on loan from the State Museum of Majdanek in Lublin, Poland,” said Steven Luckert, curator of the permanent exhibition. “In general, the shoes are the objects that leave the most profound impression on the visitors. It shows the magnitude of Nazi murder through something so deeply personal.”

Men’s loafers, children’s booties and women’s two-inch heels are piled in a disordered heap. The women’s shoes, once beautiful, may be the most shocking remnants in the exhibition. They are the reminder that some victims were hopeful, taking their finery and most feminine footwear on trains that led to this.

“Some of the shoes are very elegant, and the variety gives the sense of the deception at work to fool the victims,” Luckert said. “Jews were told they would be building new lives someplace in the East, not told they were being sent to be killed.”

There are other powerful exhibits, of course, and Peter is careful to point these out, popping up like a Greek chorus tasked with easing transitions through the exhibition.

“Doesn’t he look like a movie star? Who do you think he looks like?” Peter asks, pointing to a handsome young man in an old photograph.

“I think he looks like a young Christopher Reeve,” Peter says.

Superman. Yes. The victim looks too familiar.

“This exhibit is powerful because almost everyone in this entire village was murdered,” Peter says of the Tower of Faces, where hundreds of vintage photographs adorn the exhibit.

Occasionally, tourists approach Peter, too, shyly whispering questions that placards can’t answer. A young teenager from Seattle asks him about Eastern Europe in the ’30s. He tells her about the impact of “Mein Kampf” as her mother listens.

Some tourists ask him about book burning or the history of Hitler’s Germany. He has the facts on every exhibit.

But most visitors don’t ask questions, the most important of which have no answers. They simply clutch their ID cards tighter as they exit the winding maze.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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