Several years ago I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC for the first time. It impacted me in a way that nothing else has in my life. Recently, I extended a business trip to DC for one full day, just so I could see the museum again, with no place else to go, with all the time I needed to fully immerse myself in the visit. Almost daily in my life, I find journaling to be a very important part of my self-care and personal development. I decided that I would respectfully step away at certain points during my visit, and journal exactly what I was feeling when I was feeling it. The following are a few of my entries:
The first thing I see are small brochures, each highlighting the life of someone who suffered through the experience. I pick Majlech Kisielnicki. He looks about 15 years old. His wavy hair is combed, and a very faint smile, like so many 15-year-old boys, will give you while posing for a picture. Was it a school photo? His father runs three businesses; a grocery store, a restaurant, and a gas station. Did he work there? Probably. Did he survive? How much did he suffer?
Watching video of young men burning “un-German” books, mostly written by Jewish authors. They look like they really believe that what they are doing is righteous. They actually seem excited in the effort, smiling while they throw the books into the fire as if to be celebrating. When do our actions and what we believe fail to coincide with the moral compass that we are presumably born with? Then it did.
“Operation T4.” Physically and mentally challenged people were the first victims of systematic murder. It was a secret program, conceived as the biological cleansing of the German gene pool. More than 70,000 patients in hospitals and asylums were killed, 15 or 20 at a time. Most of the medical community bought into this, believing that government funds were better off going to people who could be “cured.” Who were these men who negated individual worth and dignity, and the value of human life? How could they ever believe in that? These poor men and women had already endured so many struggles in life, only to be caged and killed, like animals are slaughtered.
Looking at the photos of the women with their hair shaved off. I feel strong impulses of anger. I think of the humiliation and the degradation. Looking at these beautiful women, one poking her head with her hand as if to try to figure out how bad it looks, how much of her hair is gone, with no access to a mirror. It was all done so unevenly, uncaring, so cruelly. I want to leave. I can’t see anymore. But I would never – this is the least I could do. People lived through this pain.
I step aside between displays. I’m only here less than a half-hour, and I’m overwhelmed with this feeling that I have not felt in my life, pain like I have never known. What does it mean to access this feeling? It must be a human emotion, or I would not feel it. I think that speaks to the extent of the extreme depravity and cruelty I’m encountering.
Photo of the liberation, Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, April, 1945. I’m looking at the faces of the soldiers. As horrified and shocked as they appear, they are yet to know what cruelty fellow human beings subjected these victims to. They will learn, and so will the rest of the world.
I left the museum and before thinking about getting an Uber I just stood in front. I needed to transition from visiting one of the darkest times in human history, to today. Is humanity‘s darkest moments behind us? Everyone depicted in these displays – the oppressors and the oppressed – were born of the same God. How did this happen? How did these men become manifestations of evil? I looked up and saw a beautiful sunset, bright red sky painting DC. I felt hope.
I don’t know that we will ever free ourselves of evil in this world. There will still be crimes, violence and murders, and even wars. I certainly hope and pray that never again will the humanity of a whole race of people be denied. But this I am sure of: no selfishness can overpower selflessness; no evil will deter goodness, and no hate can kill love.
Mahatma Gandhi spoke of being the change we want to see in the world. It may sound idealistic, maybe naïve, but there is no universe, no world – there are just seven billion understandings of it. And if we can affect or change just one, one at a time, we can change everything.
Let that be our tribute to those who have suffered before us.
Joe Fox is a Motivational Speaker, Leadership & Life Coach, Chief of Staff, Silverseal Security, U.S. Department of Justice Medal of Valor Review Board Member, Board of Directors, 9/11/01 Tribute Park, Board of Directors, 5Star Life Insurance Company, and former NYPD Transit Chief