I went to Washington, D.C. this past weekend for the 2017 edition of the Association of Writing Professionals (AWP) annual conference. I was there to meet my pals from LitReactor.com, and to work at our book fair table, but I wound up with a morning to myself. Since I hadn't been to D.C. since high school (ack!), I decided to go exploring.
Here are some of the things I saw and learned.
1. There is much to fear in humanity's past.
I went to the Holocaust Museum. The last time I was there I was 14, naive, on an adventure with my mother. This time I was 37, and by myself, and far more educated than I was before. Therefore, the museum overal didn't have the same impact on me as it did when I was so young and couldn't get past the horror of the piles of confiscated old shoes - people wore those shoes and the Nazis stole them! - but still. It's impossible to walk through this small, unassuming building without feeling the weight of humanity's violent history on your shoulders.
When you walk into the museum, you're encouraged to take an identity card from the stacks loaded against one wall. I wandered to the women section and took one (solidarity!). The name quite literally took my breath away. Seeing the name of a girl I loved fiercely as a child (though I'm sure I never showed it) beside my own name (though spelled differently) was enough to make me slump down on a bench for more than a minute to wrap my head around fate. Clearly, this was a trip I was supposed to make.
A casting of the wall surrounding the ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. Jews were held against their will in this ghetto for years. Their living conditions were appalling; work was scarce; thousands starved and died from outbreaks of disease. Yet still. Life went on in that ghetto. People lived. Children played. Young people fell in love. There were marriages. Babies.
Life always goes on. It's our will to survive, even in the face of madness.
A cattle car used to transport Jews from ghettos to camps, or from camps to other camps. People crammed in there like sardines, in winter, spring, summer, and fall. They were locked in for days with no food and minimal water. Men and women stashed away together, with only a bucket for a latrine. Can you even imagine? What if you were shoved in there? What if you were alone? Or worse, what if you had to bring with you your child? How would you protect that child? What would you do to keep her alive?
Arbeit Macht Frei. Work sets you free. This was the lie posted over the gates at Auschwitz. Work didn't set anyone at Auschwitz free. The only way out was up through the chimney, and no one wanted to go out that way.
Government-sponsored lies are not a new thing. Nope. Not at all.
This is where people slept in Auschwitz, and I'm sure in many of the other camps. Hard wooden bunks that were shared with upwards of six other people. Can you imagine sleeping there? Crawling with lice? Your stomach churning with hunger cramps or, worse, the pains of typhoid fever? Can you imagine your neighbor crying out in the night for her dead husband or child? Can you imagine trying to comfort her, though you yourself are living a nightmare?
This. This is the history of me. I come from Romanian Jews. To my knowledge, my family tree goes back no further than the branch that immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, just in time. I don't know for certain what happened to anyone left behind; this tells me probably nothing good.
It wasn't just my family, though. That's important to remember. This is a piece of two walls of windows, etched with the names of Jewish villages raped, pillaged, and ultimately removed from the map by the Nazis. Just a piece of the walls. They stretched far over my head, and far beneath where I stood while taking this photo. That gives you a bit of scale, doesn't it?
2. We've made many mistakes, especially here in the United States.
This is an editorial cartoon from the late 1930s. At center, a Jewish man, being told to leave Europe for his own safety. At the end of every path? A simple reminder that there's actually nowhere to go. No one wants the Jewish man...or woman...or child.
No Sanctuary In America.
Need I say more?
Just...think of all the lives that could have been saved, if only we had opened our doors to the Jews. We'll never know what the world could have been like today, if only some of those murdered had been allowed to find refuge within our borders.
The quote by Bertolt Brecht really, really spoke to me. Some survived...and had to live with the guilt of their survival. I sometimes wonder who was luckier?
The words of our leaders (Dwight D. Eisenhower above, Jimmy Carter below) haunt me as well. We know better than what we're doing today. Our prior leaders knew. Our current one should as well. So what can we do to make things better?
This is on the wall of the display of contemporary genocide.
Please. Let's do our part to #SaveSyria.
3. In history, I can also find hope.
The Washington Monument above and below. What a brilliant reminder that beauty still exists in the world...and that we should protect and maintain it!
It's good to feel so very small sometimes. I felt like a mouse beside the monument, and also appreciated seeing the changing colors of the white bricks over time. Time will always leave its mark, but can also enhance beauty. I think a tall white building is kind of boring; up close, the gradations of cream and grey and even gold are stunning.
Despite our many mistakes, we've built this massive memorial to the man who fought to end slavery. We have to remember that. We've seen darkness in our country. So much darkness. At least we're smart enough to honor the ones who fought for light.
Abraham Lincoln is Barack Obama's favorite President, and is one of mine as well.
It was a warm day in D.C. when I went exploring. The shaded air inside the Lincoln Memorial was a good ten degrees cooler than in the sun outside. It was a lovely, peaceful moment, and it was amazing to see many people, of many different skin tones, pausing to admire Mr. Lincoln's words. I snapped this photo because of the very white, maleness of this person...sometimes it's good to be reminded that even this privileged class of people can take a moment to appreciate the past.
At the World War II Memorial, I found my grandfather honored for his fight against the Nazis.
I also found my daughter's great grandfathers honored for their same fight. I thought that was pretty cool. The merging of two histories to create one beautiful little girl.
My father-in-law fought in Vietnam. The war (police action) was another American mistake. That said, the boys who fought and died there still deserve to be remembered, and honored. They were told to fight for our country, our ideals, and fight they did.
We must make good decisions in the future, and we must always be ready to take a stand for what's right. But for those who are forced to fight, we must always remember: welcome them home, with love and understanding. They deserve nothing less.
I see myself in the past, the present, and sometimes even in the future. I see myself always looking for the best side of humanity, but being smart enough to recognize evil. I see myself working as hard as I can to protect the rights of every citizen in this country, and every person who needs a second chance in a new land. I see myself, most of all, as a citizen of a country that is still great, still strong, and will get through this dark time by standing firm together. Together, we are better. Always, always better.