While rummaging around the world of the internet, I came across the webpage for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which dusted off memories that I have carried with me for some years now.
I was a guest artist in the Washington D.C. area in the fall of 2011 while rehearsing for a regional musical that I was starring in. The rehearsal process for this two-person musical was rigorous and time consuming, and days off from rehearsal were certainly scarce, and usually spent recovering both vocally and physically. On one of these few days of respite from the demanding work that was the singing, acting, and prepping, my old friend and I decided to visit the Holocaust museum. I can’t recall exactly why we chose to go, but the decision came to fruition quickly, and we found ourselves on the short (well, traffic on the beltway) drive from Alexandria, Virginia to the heart of Washington D.C.
I will be completely honest here. I have a lot of memories of my visit to the museum, but I cannot walk you through my journey detail by detail or moment by moment. I simply did not experience the museum in such a way. I look back on the day as a collage of feelings, sights, smells, and other sensations that are quite difficult to convey via the written word. At that exact time in my life, I was very invested in the piece of theater that I was working on, and thoughts of perfecting the performance dominated most of my days.
Not that day. That day completely belonged to my Jewishness, and I am not sure I even knew how much it impacted me at the time. I recall walking through the museum, completely unaware of time, or of the upcoming rehearsal schedule, or the rest of life in general. I spent three hours in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and it could have been 3 minutes or 8 hours. I was completely engaged in the experience. To give you an idea of just how unique this day was, my old friend and I remained completely silent the entire time we were there, and throughout our entire drive back to Alexandria. We were theater people, and literally never stopped talking about something. This was powerful, and left us at a loss for words, or without words that seemed to contain the proper gravitas to give credit to what we had just gone through in a parallel fashion.
Prior to ever visiting the museum, I remember people telling me that “the shoes part is really going to get you,” or, “just wait until you see the shoes.” For those not familiar, one of the most powerful aspects of the museum is when you walk through a section that has shoes that were recovered from those who perished in the concentration and death camps. A seemingly incalculable number of leather shoes ranging in size from infant to adult surround anyone who walks through, and you truly feel close to just how real and how completely devastating this atrocity was. I remember the smell there. What I remember most however, is the lone car of a train that was used to transport Jews to concentration and death camps. This small and crude wooden train car was standing alone, and it immediately drew me in. I was able to walk into the car, and I distinctly remember that for just a few time traveling moments, I was able to be alone. I stand at about 6’ 3” or 6’ 4”, depending on who you ask, and I am a decent-sized person. I noticed how small this tiny car felt with its rickety wooden floorboards. I then thought about how so many people were packed into just one of these cars. I have read descriptions of crowding so overwhelming that no one could sit, and some could barely breathe. People were literally on top of each other in this car, gasping for breath. I steadied myself with one hand on the side of the car, and I imagined an image I had seen of people looking lost, standing at the entrance of one of these tiny cabs. I felt a wash of sadness, fear, anger, and so many other emotions at once. My slightly worn, but still white, Converse sneakers were standing where those leather shoes were once standing. Human beings who suffered so much were violently crammed together where my feet were, facing a future they had no idea would be so devastating. I left that car, but I carried it with me, and I still do to this day, although I rarely discuss it, and sometimes I don’t think about it. It is an experience that I can always look back to, and simply remember its impact.
I returned to rehearsal the next day, but something felt different. My perspective had shifted, and I remember thinking, “People on that train would probably love to be here, rehearsing for a musical.” Most never had the chance to make art again, to complain about mundane things, to laugh and love. They didn’t get another opportunity to sing, to mess up, to worry about what to do with their futures. I had that opportunity, but I will never forget the price that some paid.
As Jews, I think it is safe to say that we will continue to remember and honor the Holocaust. If you have not visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., I would urge you to try to make it there at some point along the way. Also, I hope you don’t take this post as a prescriptive “this is what a good Jew should do to remember the Holocaust” sort of moment. If you never want to go, that’s your prerogative. No one can prescribe or forecast that experience I had on the train car, and I hope that everyone can find their own meaningful moment…A moment that keeps the Holocaust not only fresh in our thoughts and ideas, but in our sights, smells, touches, and sounds.
That train car…never again.