This story is a difficult one to write because the subject is so painful, so appalling and so shameful – the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people – as well as other "undesirable" populations like the Roma, the disabled and the mentally ill – through organized, industrialized, wholesale slaughter. The Holocaust. Shoah.
Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 starts the evening of April 11 through the evening of April 12. The date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and in 1951, it was chosen in Israel as the first officially organized day of remembrance. In 1979, Missouri Senator John Danforth proposed an American version, which became a week of commemoration that includes the official date.
It seems an auspicious time to discover the small but exquisite gem that is the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center in St. Louis.
Explore the history: how anti-Semitism in the '20s became a political movement in the '30s and resulted in the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Follow the audio tour from propaganda through anti-Semitic decrees to Kristallnacht when the violence and destruction directed at Jewish citizens came out into the open, through the ghettos and concentration camps to liberation and resettlement. The story is skillfully told through news clippings, artifacts, journals and photographs – the most disturbing of which are displayed in a way that protects children too young for such barbarism.
Considering the seriousness of the subject, I found the museum to be both an educational and uplifting experience. I had a taste of the richness of Jewish life before – the strength and determination to survive during – and the heart to carry on after. I never knew how many survivors chose St. Louis as their post-war home, carrying their experiences and stories with them … many of which are documented in the museum.
A small photograph reached out to me. A group of boys with their Rabbi at Hebrew School. Only one child survived the Holocaust – he grew up to be Dr. Gustav Schonfeld, former head of the Department of Medicine at Washington University and a long-time St. Louis resident. His is just one story among many.
I recommend budgeting at least two hours to tour the museum – which is free (but trust me, you'll want to leave a donation) and open to the public Sunday through Friday. They are renovating the atrium, so call before visiting to make sure the museum is accessible.
For those of us who did not live through those horrifying times, it is an event that is beyond comprehension. It can seem unreal, impossible. But I once met a World War II veteran who was a witness to some 83,000 bodies laid out in the streets near the Nordhausen Concentration Camp, most of whom died from starvation and dehydration. He told me he still had nightmares.
The phrase "Never Again" has become shorthand for a commitment to remember the Holocaust and a dedication to preventing anything like it from occurring again. I would have thought that goal would be an easy one. But the day I visited, after viewing a wall of propaganda from the '20s and '30s, I saw a news story blaming Jews for American election interference.
Amazing, enlightening museums like the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center continue to hold the line, helping us to understand what happened, and without vigilance, could happen again.
There is a quote from a survivor of Sachsenhausen posted near the end of the tour: "I have told you this story not to weaken you but to strengthen you. Now it is up to you."