February 19, 2012

Regarding the Feb. 17 front-page story “Holocaust Museum at risk of losing Auschwitz piece”:

There are few moments in childhood when family history becomes tangible and memories are shaped by the contours and shadows of objects. Few moments when wandering remembrances solidify and engrave themselves on the kaleidoscope of youth.

Seeing the wooden barracks in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as a child, holding my grandfather’s hand, was one of those moments.

My grandfather, Ludwig Libman, lived and worked in Auschwitz for more than two years until the camp was liberated in 1945. During one of his last trips to Washington in the mid-’90s, he decided to visit the Holocaust museum with his granddaughters.

Ponytailed and wearing the brand-new sneakers we always received as gifts — a perk of my grandfather’s work as a suburban Illinois shoe salesman since coming to America — my sister and I accompanied Poppa through the exhibits: the corridor of destroyed town names etched on glass, the mountains of discarded shoes, the cracked wooden rail cars. My grandfather was quiet, his eyes at once distant and attentive, taking in the static exhibition of his history.

It wasn’t until we reached the wooden barracks that the memories became real.

Seeing the barracks, he suddenly stopped walking, and I felt his body stiffen. My hand, which he had enclosed in his gentle, wrinkled one, was dropped.

“I slept there,” he said softly, in his thick German-accented English. “For two years, that is where I slept.”

And then he was silent for a long time.

I don’t have many memories of my grandfather. He passed away several years ago, and we had seen each other only a handful of times while I was growing up. But what I do remember, illuminated and shining, are simple images: the way he always smelled of fresh shoe leather, birthday cards with chicken-scratch scrawl and pink hearts, and that moment in the Holocaust museum when my family’s history became more than annotation to the present. When it became real.

I urge the museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield, and the first secretary of the Polish Embassy, Witold Dzielski, to work together to ensure that the wooden barracks from Auschwitz remain a permanent part of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I sincerely hope that the particulars of the Polish loan agreement, and the politics behind amending the contract, will respect how relics, such as the barracks, are essential to maintaining the integrity of the museum as a whole.

The wooden barracks, like so many other artifacts in the museum, are more than objects colored by history. They are living memories that exist to remind us where we came from — and who we are.

Hannah Rubenstein, Nairobi, Kenya

The writer is an assistant editor for The Washington Post’s WaPo Labs.