Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day*.
On 26 April 1993 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened to the public in Washington DC. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the first visitor. A few weeks later, and in an exceptionally hot and humid summer, I was also a visitor. So many wanted to visit that it was very hard to get a ticket that weekend. I remember walking through the railway car exhibit at the museum, realising how little space these poor people had during transportation. I remember walking down one aisle so thick with people that I could not really see the exhibits in the glass cases on either side. Having read Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory last weekend, I now realise that these people had even less space than I had in that aisle that day. And they couldn’t move. And they stood like that for hours.
In his memoir, Rajchman turns a corner to encounter a pile of shoes from the dead. A pile of shoes four stories high. There is a sense that perhaps this was the moment when he realised the scale of the operation in which he found himself. I remember turning a corner in the museum in 1993 and smelling shoes. And then I saw the pile: shoes of every size. From victims all.
I vowed that weekend to return to the museum and I will. It may not be possible to understand, but it is always possible to learn.