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Rebecca Rider: Holocaust museums worth exploring

Last week, Corrhier-Lipe Middle School held an all-day conference on the Holocaust. I could write papers-worth of stories, articles and columns on the experience.

Perhaps I will.

I think the Holocaust, genocide and history are subjects worth exploring in depth, especially when I’m supposed to be talking about education.

I think I’ll start with Holocaust museums. There are hundreds of memorials worldwide. I’ve had the privilege of visiting two — The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel. The former is one of my least favorite places in the world. The latter one of my most treasured.

I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial on a trip in high school. It’s a grim, dark, depressing building — concrete and industrial metal. Holocaust museums, on the whole, are designed to make you feel a modicum of what victims went through. There’s fear, intimidation and inevitability.

Museums are also designed in such a way that you cannot go backwards, you cannot escape. You can only move forwards. I suppose that is the point.

As I was herded through the long, looping floors that day, things got increasingly more depressing. There’s one room I remember in particular — a circular chamber that passed through several floors. Walls were covered in portraits of families from a village that was entirely wiped out. The second time I had to walk through that room, I couldn’t take it anymore and ran through the rest of the museum.

I spent the remainder of the trip in the Hall of Memory, relighting candle after candle.

In many ways, my visit to Yad Vashem was the opposite. For one, I was in college. When I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it was a cold, gray, rainy morning. When I arrived at Yad Vashem, it was a hot August day.

The buildings are designed similarly — metal and concrete. But where the U.S. memorial is imposing, Yad Vashem is unassuming. To get to it, you walk down a tree-covered path on a mountain, instead of through a city. The slim, concrete prism runs, at times, so close to the ground that it almost disappears.

But it’s still harrowing. There’s a wood-plank bridge you cross to get into Yad Vashem. The bridge spans a sloping hillside. With every step, every movement, the wood creaks and groans. It is, to this day, the most awful sound I have ever heard.

The exhibits are similar, as well — there are the books, the shoes, the massacres. There’s also more. As you wind your way through Yad Vashem, you move through a story — of genocide, yes, but also of perseverance. The closer you get towards the end, the more there are stories of hope. Entire rooms are dedicated to the names and stories of those who hid families and saved hundreds and thousands of lives. Even the Hall of Names, where walls are covered in names and photos of the fallen, has a peaceful, if mournful, air.

And at the end, the concrete of the building peels back and opens onto a balcony, overlooking a forest and a valley — the trees beautifully green and the sky wonderfully wide. Just like that, it becomes a place of healing, rather than horror.

One of my professors told me never to put a moral at the end of a piece of writing, but I can’t help it — especially with a subject like the Holocaust, which swallows all words. So I’ll end by sharing what I took away from that visit, on a blistering August morning, and leave you with that — Despite all darkness, we will come into an inheritance of light.

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