Memories Matter. Never Forget. Those were the words that Holocaust Museum volunteer, Harold “Hal” Wittman spoke to me and asked me to repeat when I visited the Holocaust Museum in May 2014.
I was in Washington DC for a conference and visiting the National Holocaust Museum was high on my list. I arrived right when the museum opened on my last full day in DC, thinking I would only stay for a short while and then walk on to the Washington monument. Four hours later, I left the museum feeling so saddened by what I had seen there but also determined to share my experience and the words that Hal repeated to me as I was preparing to see the permanent exhibit.
When I arrived that morning, there was a Holocaust Survivor scheduled to speak in the auditorium. Volunteers were encouraging people to go and hear the survivor speak so I walked in and an elderly gentleman was seating people. As I walked toward this man, he directed me to a seat and then told me to keep the seat next to me – on the aisle – free for him. He needed quick access on the aisle so I did as he asked. As the program started, he took his seat next to me. We didn’t speak until the presentation was over and I began a conversation with him. I really don’t remember what I said to him but he thanked me later for “taking the initiative to stop and talk.” Hal and I continued talking for quite a while and we shared many stories and opinions during this short time. I talked about Hispanic issues in Alabama and he talked about things to see at the museum that resonated with him. We stood in the auditorium for so long that the moderator for the presentation with the Holocaust survivor joined us. I don’t remember his name but he was a local newscaster and he knew Hal and easily joined into our conversation. Both were very interested in what was happening in Alabama surrounding immigration issues which I wasn’t expecting. After the moderator left and we were walking out of the auditorium together, Hal suddenly stopped, turned to me and said he wanted me to repeat something he was about to say. That’s when he said to me “Memories Matter and Never Forget.” I repeated these words back to him and he smiled at me. It became my mantra that day.
It was getting close to time for me to go through the permanent exhibit but Hal wanted to show me around the main floor. It was great having my own personal guide through the museum. We walked through Daniel’s Story, an exhibition for children, as well as the Wall of Remembrance filled with tiles made by children and dedicated in 1993 to remember the children who lost their lives in the holocaust. We spoke for so long that I missed my tour time but Hal walked me through the long line of people and straight to the elevator so I could get through. Before I got on the elevator, he gave me his card with his phone number and said, “I don’t want to be forward but I’ve so enjoyed speaking with you. After you go through the exhibits, I would like to hear your thoughts on what you see.” I told him I would be happy to share my thoughts with him and took the card. Then, before the doors closed he said to me again – “Memories matter – never forget!” I repeated those words back to him…
With those words freshly planted in my mind, I went through the exhibit. I will tell you that it isn’t an easy museum to go through. I had moments where I had to just stop and sit for a while because it was so overwhelming. There were several times where what I saw just took my breath away. One of those times was when I walked through the “Shoe Room.” As you walk through, you don’t see much at first but you are hit by a smell…a smell of mustiness. Then as you look closer, your eyes are overwhelmed by a sea of shoes – thousands and thousands of shoes on either side of you. As I looked closer, I was moved to tears. There were shoes for all walks of life – men’s shoes, women’s high heels, slippers, children’s shoes…and there were baby shoes. When I saw the baby shoes it made me think of a young mother carrying her child, getting on a train and not knowing what was to come of their lives. I was looking at the soles of these shoes and sensing the souls of the people who once wore them. Then I read the quote on the wall…
“We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers from Prague, Paris and Amsterdam, and because we are only made of fabric and leather and not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.” – Moshe Szulsztein
I ended my visit at the Hall of Remembrance. An Eternal Flame burns on a black marble block which contains dirt from 38 of the concentrations camps in Europe. Also included is dirt from a cemetery in Europe where American soldiers are buried to honor the American liberators of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. The quote on the wall is from Deuteronomy – “only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”
This is where the words “memory matters” really made sense to me. These words from Deuteronomy are about the responsibility of memory. My visit had come full circle thanks to Hal and the words he asked me to repeat.
Later that evening, I called Hal and shared my thoughts on the Holocaust Museum. I told him I wished I could have spent even more time there because there was so much more I wanted to read and learn. He was pleased with what I shared and repeated those very important words again as we finished our conversation. After we hung up, I wondered if Hal had family impacted by this time in history. I’ll never know but as a volunteer for the museum, he was so invested in sharing the story of the Holocaust and making sure that people who visit understand what happened and share their experiences in their corners of the world. I’m forever grateful that I met Hal that day…and I’ll always remember those words he shared…Memories Matter / Never Forget.