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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  
  - darkometer rating:  7 -
 
This is one of the world's most important Holocaust memorial centres, even though, being in the USA, it is "dislocated" from what it commemorates. But it's still a top-drawer dark tourism destination, and certainly the No. 1 in Washington D.C. for the dark tourist. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

 
More background info: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) is the USA's (if not the world's) premier Holocaust memorial centre. It was opened in 1993 and has become so incredibly popular (attracting millions of visitors) that it is now one of the most important institutions of its kind in the whole world.
 
That's even though it is "dislocated" from what it commemorates (see the concept of dark tourism) – that is to say it is neither located at a place where the Holocaust happened, i.e. especially in Poland, nor in a country of either the perpetrators or victims, i.e. Germany/Austria and Israel (as well as many countries in Europe), respectively. In fact, for this very reason it was initially even questioned whether the USA needed to have such a place [see Lennon/Foley, p148].
 
Indeed, I would also say that seeing the exhibition at the USHMM cannot replace a visit to the authentic sites in Europe where the Holocaust took place, in particular places like Auschwitz or other death camps (even if there may not be any elaborate educational exhibitions).
 
Yet the USHMM is probably (at least nearly) on a par with Yad Vashem in Israel in global importance. As the home of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, it also sets the benchmark for Holocaust remembrance and research in the USA (and beyond).
 
A speciality here (similar to the Museum of Tolerance in L.A.) is that visitors to the main permanent Holocaust exhibition are given "ID cards" at the entrance, by means of which they virtually assume the identity of some victim. The practice seems to have changed somewhat – in the past these "IDs" had to be "updated" as you went along (with the option of printing sheets out at interactive stations), e.g. you would learn whether "you" are in hiding, or if/when "you are being" arrested, deported to a concentration camp, etc., and eventually you would find out whether "you" have survived or not – and if not, how you perished. The latter is still the case, but today the ID cards are simply small booklets of four pages on which the different stages of the relevant person's history are printed. That way you don't actually so much "assume" the person's identity – in a way it simply provides extra information on a single individual case (and this remains fully optional as well – you don't have to use the ID cards to get through the museum). Still this approach does try to personalize the "experience" at the exhibition.
 
This element of ID cards has not been without criticism (e.g. Lennon/Foley quote remarks about the "irony of 'discarded' identities in the litter bins at the exit", p.146). On the other hand, a visit to the USHMM is self-guided and not quite as multi-media-heavy as the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. … Both institutions also share a certain lack of authenticity in that some of the artefacts on display are replicas rather than originals ... although the USHMM does its best to incorporate originals, many of which are on loan from sites of the Holocaust such as Majdanek.
 
Another element of criticism has been that the museum does a bit too much to "Americanize" the Holocaust – which is indeed partly the case; but then again, it is after all directed in the first instance at American visitors (even though a large proportion of visitors are from abroad according to the statistics, and that was also my own impression when I visited in March 2010).
 
The museum has also been criticized for not covering anything of Germany's post-war history of successful democratization (at least in the West's FRG), European integration and its remarkable process of "coming to terms with" its dark past. It can indeed be feared that visitors to the USHMM who are unfamiliar with contemporary Germany and Europe leave with a clear impression that Germany is only that of 1933-45, i.e. an easily demonized "evil" country. Indeed, I too felt that sometimes less demonic aspects of Germany (e.g. helpers of Jews, Hitler assassination attempts) were all too absent and that there is in fact the tendency to point a guilty finger at Germany as a whole … but then again, one can hardly complain too much about the latter, given the enormity of the crime that the Holocaust was.
 
On balance, you do get a very in-depth, highly accurate historical account at the USHMM. The criticisms raised only apply to certain aspects and do little to detract from the overall excellence of the exhibition in general.
 
 
What there is to see: The main part of the museum is its permanent exhibition about the Holocaust. There are a lot of texts and photos but also dozens of video monitors and interactive stations, as well as a few artefacts. It's comprehensive. The exhibition covers several floors and is ordered more or less in the usual chronological/thematic way, from early anti-Semitism and persecution to the death camps and the aftermath post-WWII.
 
First you have to acquire a (free of charge) timed pass from the information desk in the centre of the spacious foyer, i.e. you will be allocated the nearest time slot available. So unless it's a very quiet day you will probably have to wait a while. This is to keep the numbers of visitors inside the exhibition at any one time under control, i.e. to prevent excessive overcrowding – a good idea, I think, but it means that at busy times visitors will often be allocated a time slot a few hours later in the day so that they have to come back for it ... or do the special/temporary exhibitions first, for which no passes are required. Make sure not to be late for your time slot, as otherwise access can be denied.
 
Before you start your self-guided tour you are handed a small folded "identity card", based on a real person's biography from the time of the Holocaust. These cards are subdivided into four pages: 1) a general family background, 2) the individual's story in the years 1933 to 1939, 3) his or her story during the principal Holocaust years 1940 to 1945, and 4) the end … You are supposed to only find out whether "your" person survived or not at the end of the circuit. But if you're impatient, there's nothing to stop you from "peeking ahead" – and to pre-empt it here virtually: in our cases (we were a small group of three), all IDs revealed at the end that they all survived. And after WWII two of them emigrated (guess what?) to the USA, while the subsequent whereabouts of the third ID were left open.
 
Once through the entrance to the permanent exhibition proper, you take a lift to the top floor, from where you "work your way down" back to the bottom. The three main exhibition floors directly correspond to the subdivisions on the ID cards, i.e. it starts with the years 1933 to 1939, with the rise to power of the Nazis and the onset of persecution up to the beginning of WWII.
 
The very first bit of the exhibition, however, does not follow the strict chronology but kind of sets the scene – from the American perspective: namely with the arrival of US troops to liberate concentration camps in 1945, i.e. those in the west, such as Dachau, not those in Poland.
 
Only then, does the exhibition turn to the early phases of what the museum calls "Nazi Assault 1933 to 1939". Both the Nazi propaganda machine set in motion to "brainwash" the population as well as the early instances of physical police state persecution of singled out "enemies of the state" are recounted, from arrests of political opposition to the "Kristallnacht" ('night of broken glass') pogroms in 1938.
 
The emphasis is, predictably, on the Jewish victims, but the museum does also mention other groups of victims, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and Roma.  
 
Interestingly, this section also covers the less heroic aspects of the American role during these years before WWII. Particularly poignant is the story of the "St Louis", the ship with Jewish refugees from Germany who were refused entry to the USA and had to turn back. Many then sought refuge in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, where they were later captured by the Nazis when Germany occupied its western neighbours too.
 
Another sub-section on this floor of the exhibition is on the topic of the Nazis' racial theories of a superior race and, in turn, inferiors "unworthy of life", such as people with mental disabilities. The most drastic consequence of that ideology was, of course, the Nazis' "euthanasia" programme, the Aktion T-4, during which tens of thousands were murdered by gassing in places like Hadamar and Hartheim. Touch-screen terminals (with seats) supplement this section with further information.
 
There are also two films (13-14 minutes each) shown on a loop on this floor on the "Nazi Rise to Power" and "Anti-Semitism".
 
The exhibition continues on the floor below and is entitled "The Final Solution – 1940 to 1945". This is the grim core of the museum.
 
Here it all is: the ghettos, the hiding (of course, the Anne Frank story comes up here), the destruction of the Shtetls and the massacres by the Einsatzgruppen in the East (e.g. Babi Yar in Ukraine or in Lithuania), failed ghetto uprisings, the concentration camps and the culmination of the "Final Solution" in Operation Reinhard, the systematic industrial mass murder in the gas chambers of the death camps.
 
Exhibits include items from the ghettos, a replica of the Auschwitz "Arbeit macht frei" gate, stones from the quarry at the Mauthausen camp, weapons used in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, piles of concentration camp victims' shoes (on loan from Majdanek), bunk beds from the barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau (also on loan), a gas chamber door (from Majdanek), etc. – and the largest original artefact of them all: a deportation railway car of the "Karlsruhe" type (a donation by the Polish State Railways). The circuit passes straight through this railcar – but for those who can't handle it there's an alternative route leading around it. Very thoughtful, since it is really quite tough looking into the confined space of the railcar and trying to imagine up to 100 people crammed into it … The railway car also marks the halfway point of the exhibition.
 
Another extremely gruesome exhibit on this floor is a model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber and crematorium block II. It's only a scale model made of white plaster, but the depiction of the horror is graphic. From the selection process to the undressing in front of the fake "shower rooms", the agony of death in the actual gas chamber, followed by the clearing of the bodies from the chamber by the "Sonderkommando" and the cremation of the dead in the ovens. Chilling.  
  
In an audio theatre testimonies from Holocaust survivors, called "Voices from Auschwitz", are played.
  
The final section on the next floor down is called "The Last Chapter" and it returns to the beginning, as it were, namely to the liberation of the camps towards the end of WWII. Here not only the US liberators of Dachau, Buchenwald, etc. are covered, but also the earlier liberation of Majdanek and Auschwitz by the Soviets, as well as the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
 
The other focus in this section is on rescue efforts, such as those of Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, or the clandestine evacuations of Jews from Denmark to neutral Sweden. The latter is showcased with another large original exhibit: one such fishing boat used in these evacuations. What impressed me a lot more, though, was a much smaller artefact: the original diplomatic passport of Wallenberg, returned to his family by the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, now on display here at the USHMM. Wallenberg had been arrested by the Soviets at the end of WWII and taken to the infamous Lubyanka in Moscow, where he died under controversial circumstances in 1947 (still a diplomatic issue between Sweden and Russia). That his passport survived is all the more remarkable in this context.  
 
Resistance efforts are also covered, including the tragic case of Lidice, wiped out by the Nazis as a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.  
 
Resistance from within Germany is touched on only very briefly in passing, in particular the White Rose movement gets a mention (cf. Munich). Stories of Germans helping Jews (e.g. by hiding them from the Nazis – which did also happen!) are notably absent ... at least I failed to spot any such element. Much more is made of helpers in other circumstances, such as Raoul Wallenberg. On balance, this leaves a slightly awkward feeling (especially in me as a German) that perhaps the museum did not want to have any positive portrayals of "good Germans" to get in the way of a wholesale condemnation. See the criticisms above.
 
The aftermath of the Holocaust is covered too: from the Nuremberg Trials to the 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad in Argentina and his subsequent trial in Israel. A particularly abhorrent event was the pogrom in Kielce, Poland, in 1946, when Jewish Holocaust survivors who had returned to their old home were massacred by a still deeply anti-Semitic mob and both police and church did nothing to intervene.
 
After this event, the exodus of Jewish survivors from Europe to the newly created state of Israel in Palestine intensified, as did emigration to the USA. The "return to life" in a new world then links to the permanent exhibition's closing section, which in a way is again a return to the Americanization of the perspective, namely in the form of the reactions to the horrors of the Holocaust in the USA.
 
This is supplemented in the "Testimony Theater" where a film is shown that is a compilation from hundreds of interviews with witnesses and survivors. Many a touching story is told here – well worth lingering for!
 
As you exit the permanent exhibition you get to the Hall of Remembrance opposite. This is a hexagonal chamber, intended for quiet reflection, rather than education/information (which most visitors will just have received in the exhibition). On the walls the names of the concentration camps and death camps are set in gold letters against black above rows of candles.
 
After a few moments in this Hall you then descend the central stairs back into the central atrium.
 
There's a second exhibition entitled "Remember the Children – Daniel's Story", which, as you may guess, is directed more at younger visitors. The regular permanent exhibition is not recommended for under 11-year-olds, whereas the age recommendation for the "Daniel's Story" section is from 8.
 
Inside is a much less gruesome, heavily "personalized" account of the years 1933 to 1945, mostly "through the eyes" of its namesake central character, a (presumably fictional?) boy growing up in Nazi Germany, later sent to the Lodz ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz. There's lots of kiddie-oriented stuff like teddy bears and playthings in "Daniel's room", but it does move on to more sinister scenes of ghetto life, another deportation train display (only part of a replica here) and walls with full-size images of concentration camp fences. Naturally, though, it doesn't get as graphic here. But the story of horror is conveyed, if somewhat cushioned. At the end, children are invited to send letters "to Daniel".
 
One exhibit I found ever so slightly disturbing was a relief map of Europe, with the shape of Germany coloured green against the rest of the continent's beige and the name of the country written into it (as well as those of the neighbours France and Poland) and a little red lamp set into the middle of Germany. A sign by a button next to the map says "press to button to see Germany light up", which indeed happens if you do so. Eureka!
 
On the one hand it seems to have this undercurrent of "let's all point a guilty finger at Germany" to it; cf. some of the criticisms referred to above. On the other, it is disturbing to find that American kids are apparently so "geographically challenged" that they need that amount of multiple directions to be able to put a major Central European country on the map …
 
The children's exhibition, by the way, does not require timed passes, you can just go in. A good way to while a bit of time away if you have to wait for your slot for the main exhibition. Otherwise, adult dark tourists could just as well consider skipping "Daniel's Story" …
 
Apart from the permanent exhibition, there are also special temporary ones in the basement lower level gallery and the Gonda Education Center.
 
At the time of my visit (March 2010), one such extra exhibition was on other genocides, past and present (Rwanda, Bosnia, etc., and Darfur in Sudan, respectively).
 
The other temporary exhibition was entitled "State of Deception – The Nazi Power of Deception". This featured mainly Nazi posters that demonstrate the well-known glorification or demonization techniques of propaganda. The exhibition was limited to just Nazi Germany, though it also prompted the questions of "what are the lessons to be learned". Interestingly, in the guest book at the exit of this exhibition a remarkably recurrent comment visitors (mainly Americans!) left was one pointing to Fox News for contemporary examples of deviously manipulative propaganda. Maybe more Americans are quite aware of their propaganda at home than Europeans think …
 
Attached to the museum are also a cafe, a large theatre, a library and more. And not to forget the museum shop! Here all manner of material about the Holocaust, primarily in book form, is on offer – also on topics related to the themes of the temporary special exhibitions. I couldn't resist buying a glorious book of colour reproductions of North Korean socialist realism propaganda posters as well as a 2005 reprint copy of Edward Barney's classic pro-propaganda pamphlet, originally written in 1928 (!!) … oh, and a small fluffy "Refugee" teddy bear …
 
By the main entrance/exit of the USHMM there's a stark reminder that the effects of deluded propaganda can hit home even (or especially?) at a place of commemoration and education such as the USHMM: by the door, there's an "in memorial" plaque for Stephen Tyrone Johns, the museum guard who in June 2009 was shot dead by an 88-year-old white supremacist Holocaust denier who entered the museum and immediately opened fire. (The attacker was then quickly brought down by other museum guards returning fire, wounded and arrested – but he died before he could be put on trial … same old story.) Apparently, the museum frequently receives threats from that kind of extreme-right ideological corner, but up to then nothing this serious had happened. No wonder security is very tight these days.
  
 
Location: just off the National Mall, south of Independence Avenue, at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW (official address) and 14th  Street SW (= US highway 1), where the main entrance is located; just 500 yards or so south-east of the Washington Monument right in the centre of Washington D.C., USA!
 
Google maps locator: [38.8867,-77.0322]
 
 
Access and costs: easy to get to but access restrictions apply that may mean long waiting times; free.
 
Details: the very central location of the USHMM means it's even walkable from the main sights on the National Mall in central Washington. The Washington Monument – the centre point of it all is literally just round the corner. The nearest Metro station is "Smithsonian" just one block to the east (orange and blue lines). Driving is discouraged; there are no parking facilities at the museum.
 
NOTE: during high season between March and August, you need to acquire a timed pass for visiting the permanent Holocaust exhibition, which will allow entrance only at a specific time (this restriction does not apply to other parts of the museum). You can either queue up for a pass on the day and come back later for the allocated time slot, unless you're so lucky as to get one without much waiting time. The earlier you get to the pass desk, the better. Even if you don't get a pass for entrance straight away, you can use the time until your slot for taking a look at some of the sights in the vicinity (see combinations). If you only have an hour or so until your time slot comes up you could just as well do the sections of the museum that do not require such day passes first – and/or any temporary exhibitions.
 
Alternatively, a certain contingent of tickets are available for purchase in advance online, but for a small booking fee of 1.75 USD and only in limited numbers (find the relative link to the service on www.ushmm.org). This may sound like a good idea if you don't have much time to play with when in the city. But be aware that these strictly limited numbers of tickets offered online do sell out very quickly well in advance! When I tried a day or two ahead while already in D.C., at the end of March 2010, I found the next available online tickets were for dates weeks away; so I did end up having to queue and while away a few hours before my allocated time slot was due.
 
Opening hours: daily 10 a.m. to 5:20 p.m. (closed only on Yom Kippur and Christmas Day). Pass desk (for time-specific tickets) closes at 4:30 p.m. – note: it makes little sense to go too late in the afternoon: a) the exhibitions warrant longer visitation times and b) if you leave it too late you risk being turned away because all timed same-day passes are gone (and they don't hand out passes for the next day, so you'd have to line up and take your chances again the next day).
 
Admission free (except pre-purchased online tickets, for which a small fee is levied)
 
The museum is wheelchair accessible throughout; furthermore all manner of assistance for people with disabilities is offered.   
 
NOTE: no photography or videoing is allowed inside the exhibitions and only non-flash photos in the Hall of Remembrance.
 
Also, museum policies prohibit eating, drinking, smoking and a general reverential behaviour is asked for … and this is enforced: on my visit a group of chatting (Spanish-speaking) teenagers apparently exceeded the permissible noise levels and a museum guard suddenly (and loudly!) admonished visitors: "on behalf of the museum, out of respect, would you please continue your conversations at a lower volume!"
 
 
Time required: very roughly speaking, something between two and four hours should be an adequate estimate.
 
The museum's own advice is even more fluid: on the one hand they reckon that most first-time visitors can expect to spend between two to three hours at the exhibition – in other places it says that some visitors may go through the permanent exhibition in as little as one hour while others often spend up to six hours in it. Sounds vague, but when I visited (in March 2010) I found this to be quite reasonable. Here's my own account of time spent:
 
Already familiar with much of the information about the Holocaust, I was able to go through many of the main sections of the permanent exhibition more quickly than actual first-timers to the whole topic (if there are any such visitors at all – I'd rather presume that most visitors will at least have a partial grasp of the topic before coming here). Some sections I could more or less even skip, at others I dwelled a little longer, but I felt like I was being quick. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time at the extras, such as the films (interviews with witnesses/survivors) shown at the end. And there would have been even more to watch. Overall I ended up spending more or less exactly three hours in total, but could have stayed longer – only it was getting late (I had been given an afternoon time slot, for 3 p.m., so there was a time limit before closing time at 6:30 p.m. in any case) and I also wanted to have some time to browse in the museum shop.
 
To take every single bit in that's on offer, especially every minute of film screened, and everything that's available at the interactive stations then you could probably spend a whole day here (and that's just for the museum – not counting the attached Wexner Learning Center). Virtually all visitors, however, will be selective to some degree to avoid information overload.  
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: The museum's location just south of the National Mall makes it easily combinable with the other sites on the Mall, especially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, about a mile (1.5 km) to the north-west, or the Newseum also roughly a mile away, but to the north-east. I would, however, not recommend doing both the USHMM and the Newseum on the same day. That could easily lead to museum-overload – unless perhaps if you split your visit of the Newseum over two days (which the tickets allow for).
 
Adding a walk along the National Mall after the Holocaust Museum, on the other hand, can actually be a very good idea, also simply for lifting the heaviness of the experience at the USHMM by moving around in the open air for a bit.
 
For more dark sites further afield in the city see under Washington D.C.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The museum is located just round the corner from the central section of the National Mall, i.e. bang in the middle of Washington D.C.'s principal tourist centre. To the west, the presidential memorials (as well as the various war memorials) are spread out. The closest to the museum are the giant central obelisk of the Washington Monument to the north-west and, even closer, the Jefferson Memorial on the southern banks of the Tidal Basin less than half a mile away (700m).
 
Further to the north, the White House is in easy walking distance too, while the Capitol lies a bit further to the east. Along the way, the National Mall is lined with all those other museums and galleries, in particular the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, the Air & Space Museum and the Museum of the American Indian. The latter is worth a visit, even if you're not so interested in native American arts, namely for its fabulous, though expensive, ethnic food court alone, where specialities from all of the Americas are on offer – a superb place for lunch!
  
   
  
  
  
  

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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