A Visit to the Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C., USA
In 2002 I was a finalist of the TEA program and spent two fantastic months in the USA.
We spent 7 days in Washington, D.C., USA before going to Columbia, S. C. where our perminant residence was. Of course we visited all possible places of interest in Washington, D.C. and every day we passed by that massive grey building of the Holocaust Museum, and I was so afraid to enter it. I tried to look away. I knew the words by Elie Wiesel, Founding Council Chairman and Nobel Laureate: “This museum symbolizes our victory over forgetfulness, thus saving the victims from a second death. This museum owes you much. Look at it and be proud.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial is America’s National Institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust. The museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy, to preserve the memory of those who suffered, and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.
In front of the Holocaust Museum in 2002,
Washington D.C., USA (photo submitted by the author)
Still I passed by, closing my eyes every time. But on my way back, before leaving the USA, on my last day in the evening, when I came to say farewell to the Jefferson Memorial, which is very close to the Holocaust Museum, I understood that I could not leave this country without visiting this Museum.
At the beginning of the tour in the Holocaust Museum, I was given an identification card and I became Bertha Adler.
Name: Bertha Adler
Date of Birth: June 20, 1928
Place of Births: Selo-Solotvino, Czechoslovakia
Bertha was the second of three daughters born to Yiddish-speaking Jewish parents in a village in Czechoslovakia’s easternmost province. Soon after Bertha was born, her parents moved the family to Liege, an industrial, largely Catholic city in Belgium that had many immigrants from Eastern Europe.
1933-39: Bertha’s parents sent her to a local elementary school, where most of her friends were Catholic. At school Bertha spoke French. At home, she spoke Yiddish. Sometimes her parents spoke Hungarian to each other, a language they had learned while growing up. Bertha’s mother, who was religious, made sure that Bertha also studied Hebrew.
1940-44: Bertha was 11 when the Germans occupied Liege. Two years later, the Adlers, along with all the Jews, were ordered to register and Bertha and her sisters were forced out of school. Some Catholic friends helped the Adlers obtain false papers and rented them a house in a nearby village. There, Bertha’s father fell ill one Friday and went to the hospital. Bertha promised to visit him on Sunday to bring him shaving cream. That Sunday, the family was awakened at 5 a.m. by the Gestapo. They had been discovered.
Fifteen-year-old Bertha was deported to Auschwitz on May 19, 1944. She was gassed there two days later.
So I was Bertha Adler. I went through the exposition very quickly, because I was so frustrated and sick, that everything I wanted to do was to run away and never ever see it again. I wanted to escape this world and find myself in the open air again. There was a nurse outside and she helped me. I went back to my hotel, stayed in bed while my colleagues celebrated the farewell party and I went home back to Russia absolutely heartbroken. It was not because I am so sensitive, that was something else. I was another person. And I always ask my students a question – “What happened to me? Why am I not the person I was yesterday?”
I have been collecting my students’ responses for many years. Here are some of them:
“Of course it’s horrible to live somebody’s life, especially when the girl went through the Holocaust. You felt what she felt, and you didn’t understand why that happened to her exactly. You might have thought that that torture could have happened to you or your relatives. You might have thought that never again will the world be silent and you would do your best as a teacher to tell your students everything you saw there.”
“Maybe at some moment you wish you had been dead instead of seeing and hearing about it. But you have shown us the moral compass by which we navigate our lives and by which countries should navigate the future.”
“I think this museum makes people stare this evil of the Holocaust in the face and only then we can be sure it will never arise again. It’s good that you went there; you felt you should. Thank you for telling us all about it.”
“You were frustrated and upset because you were afraid that the Holocaust may touch your children in the future.”
“You are a very sensitive person. You shouldn’t go to such places as the Holocaust Museum. We have enough examples in our Russian life to think about it. Remember Beslan, isn’t it a Holocaust?”
“You had nowhere to go to, because you have seen everything already in Washington, D.C. and you have spoilt all your impressions about the USA.”
“You understood it is dangerous to believe different gods. He should be one for everybody and if He is different, you are not to blame if you believe in this or that God. It’s everybody’s choice. No one can make me believe another God that I do now.”
“You understood that you are not a racist and, I think, such teachers have to work at school, because schools are now multinational. And you can understand everybody.”
“Every normal person should know everything about it. You were right to have gone there. I’m proud of you. Your story impressed me as much as it had done upon you.”
“I hate Jews, but I don’t understand the Holocaust. You may hate a person, but why kill him or her?”
“Fascism is something immoral that could never ever come again in any form. It’s pure discrimination in its worst form. We have to stop it. It doesn’t have any right to exist.”
It took me two years to think over everything that I saw and to tell my students about that visit. I regretted that I hadn’t done it before and had lost so much time.
I’m sure the Holocaust can be taught effectively in the classroom, because these lessons inspire younger generations to strengthen democracy and influence those who will be responsible for the fabric of our society tomorrow. Eight years have passed by, but I am always so nervous to describe everything I saw there. Being rather a sentimental person I can hardly suppress my tears every time I start telling about my visit.
My Holocaust lessons are one of many opportunities to teach about the events of the Holocaust and consequences of racism and indifference. They encourage my students to reflect critically on their own beliefs, behavior, and responsibilities toward each other.
Every school year I start my first lesson with a discussion on the problems of tolerance and diversity in our society. I set up such questions as:
Will people remember the Holocaust? How will people remember the Holocaust? Will they see the relevance of this history to their own lives? Will rising anti-semitism be halted? What will “never again” mean in the 21-st century?
This year I told them about my visit to the Holocaust Museum there in Washington, D.C. As their hometask the students were asked to do a kind of free writing on the topic. Below you can see one of the stories.
A Letter to Bertha Adler, a Girl from Nowhere
This is Aljona writing to you. For some people it may seem strange to write to the person who is no more. But they say people live as long as they are remembered. Not long ago my teacher of English told us about her visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C, USA. She said that before visiting it she had no idea that the exhibition would have changed her life forever both personally and professionally. At the beginning of the tour in the Holocaust Museum, she was given an identification card and she became you, Bertha Adler.
I understood it is dangerous to believe different gods. He should be one for everybody and if He is different, you were not to blame. It was your choice. No one can make me believe another God that I do now. The Holocaust is just what I don’t understand. You may hate a person, but why kill him or her? Fascism is something immoral that should never ever come again in any form. It’s pure discrimination in its worst. We must stop it. It doesn’t have any right to exist.
I’ll try to do my best to persuade people not to do anything of this kind in future. I’m still young and I have a lot of time to tell about you. I’d like to visit the place of your birth Selo-Solotvino, Czechoslovakia, the easternmost province. I know it is nice there. A friend of mine went to the Czech Republic last summer and she enjoyed those wonderful places you lived in. Today you would have been 81 and might have had plenty of children and grandchildren. I’m sure you would have lived happily together in your big and friendly family, enjoying this wonderful world that has been made for us. Now I have to live for both me and you, Bertha.
But still I am afraid our world is a dangerous place to live in. I’m afraid that tomorrow there may be another Holocaust and some other nations will suffer. Jews are not to blame because of one person who betrayed. They believed and still believe in their own God. It’s their choice and this choice has to be respected. You suffered for absolutely nothing. This world is one place, but we are different. But difference doesn’t mean one nation is good and another is bad.
That’s what I wanted to tell you, Bertha, after reading your identification card. You are luckier than those who were just killed for nothing and nobody knows either their names or the places of their tragedy.
Alyona Mironova, 11a, School 46, Kaliningrad