Posted by: nastypen | October 17, 2006

The Value of Memory

(OK, this is a lengthy post.  Tonight’s my last night in Washington DC.  Tomorrow, i’m heading back to ultra glamorous New Jersey and i do not know if I could blog from there frankly.  I don’t even know if i have time to go to the Smithsonian tomorrow for the dinosaurs.  Oh well) 

I remember when I was younger, my dad bought me a copy of a National Geographic magazine.  The written word did not interest me so much as i just flipped through the pages gawking at the lovely and fantastic photographs.  I came upon a spread with a photograph of a young woman, a scarf covering her hair as she stared away from the camera. She was wearing a striped prisoner outfit, i could tell that from the several cartoons I saw in my young life of cartoon characters with the usual ball and chain.  Her photo was just next to another portrait of a little boy with frightened eyes and in some prisoner garb.  There was a massive stack of old shoes enclosed in a glass cage next to the photos.

They had these weird badges on their shirt.  I could not understand any of it.  I asked dad what it was. 

He simply said, “War.”

War?  I thought war is the type I see in G.I. Joe cartoon series with tanks, whizzing airplanes and big men and their guns.

It turned out I was staring at photos from a musuem in Poland featuring the ravages of World War II and the concentration camps.  i will never forget that.

I remember that photograph today as I entered in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  i am looking forward to gooing to this exhibit because, truth be told, i find dark affinity with the Holocaust.  Perhaps in my past life I was one of those who perishedin the camps?  Perhaps this piqued my interest to whet my dark mood’s appetites?  It is more than that. 

I want to bear wintness to such inhumanity. 

I want to walk through pictures and videos of such starlting horror as opposed to be hypnotized by the television of a thirty-second news item about an explosion, rumors of genocide only to be toppled by a longer news item about Brad and Angelina.

I want to…need to bear witness to learn.

Photography is not allowed inside the museum’s permannet exhibit.  However, i stole some shots using my mobile phone — which was allowed to be brought in — but only a few shots.  I know.  i know.  I’m a bad person not to pay heed but there are just some things I cannot help myself.  i have to somehow visually share my experience.  Besides, i thought of buying a postcard or two and scan them instead.  However, i don’t have a scanner here and the poscard costs US$.80, which by the way is the equivalent of a meal in McDonald’s back home in Manila.  So, the price disparity is reason enough for me to steal shots.

The museum entrance is for free.  The first thing i saw as i went in was a souvenir shop. Ah.  I admire their banking on misery and inhumanity.  I saw a row of flags used by the American soldiers as they liberated the concentration camps. 

the museum from outside looks like a monolithic block of granite.  But inside, it looks like a red bricked factory with steel lines criscrossing the ceiling as if invoking a cold atmosphere.  I mean how does one design an institution whose sole purpose is to keep the memories of atrocities alive?  It reminded me of those German factories and warehouses i saw in movies.

the view from above

Before i ride the elevator, i had to get an identification card.  It was a card with a photo of a holocaust survivor and a short biography.

Going about the musuem exhibit is not as confusing as that of the National gallery wherein you can skip art historical periods.  In the Holocaust memorial, you have to follow a path.  It starts with a huge photo covering a wall of charred remains of those who were burnt by the fleeing Germans as the Allied forces entered the camps.

The exhibit then starts a narrative stating of Jewish presence in Europe for several centuries.  Then came along Adolf Hitler that used the prevailing and simmering hatred and distrust for the more affluent and successful Jews in German to stoke the fire of supposed patriotism and at the same time to push him to control the nation.

The exhibit showed some interesting, but more distorubing process of classification by race.  Nazi-backed scientists were using some compare and contrast mechanism to distinguish race so as to prevent racial impurities for the Great Aryan civilization.  there were several film clips of Hitler in his frenzied speeches.  It was unnerving to see little blond boys and girls smiling beatifically at the furher.

i liked that the exhibit was unflinching in tis portrayal of the facts.  It noted there that the Nazis got an idea of race laws and segregation from the American South.  Or how the Americans failed to allow refugees in their borders lest they breach the immigration quota set up to give in to the American general public’s xenophobic stance.

Australia even said of the Jewish refugees, “We don’t have a race problem and we don’t want to import one now.”

Only Dominican Republic agreed to allow the refugees in.  Some Jews went as far away as Shanghai and Japan.  I researched years ago that some of the German Jews sought in the Philippines.  i saw it in a book before.  One of the exhibits there marked the “Philippine islands” as one of the countries who accepted the Jews.

I remember a book about the about Jews who escaped hitler but ended up in the terror of the Japanese invasion in the Philippines.  i saw that book in the museum shop:  

i wanted to buy this book.

I wanted to buy it but it costs US$30…before taxes.  So, i just held it, smelled its pages and let it go.

What i also like of the exhibit was that they finally recognized quite recently the incarceration of homosexuals by the Nazis.  They showed photos of men who were identified homosexuals.  Their photos were taken ala criminal mug shot.  they had to wear Pink triangle badges while the Jews wore the yellow Star of David.  It was stated that “the homosexuals usually had the hardest labor in the camp.”  i also read about it this years ago in a slim volume entitled Men of the Pink triangle.  i bought it in a queer shop in Malate, Manila.

There was an actual train coach that shipped the incarcerated people to the camps.  We had to get through the coach.  i went in and it was really dark with two small shafts of light permeating from tiny window slats on the side of the coach.  The air became heavy as i imagined the faces of people crammed inside the coach.

I saw a reproduction of the gate to Auschwitz with the words “Arbreit Macht Frei” or Work Will Make You Free.

This was false, of course.  The Nazis gave the impression to those who arrived in Auschwitz that this is a labor camp.  It was an extermination camp, of course.  They had a diorama on the process of gassing.  It was pretty creepy that the Nazis took photos of people before they went down to this underground hallway for “showers.”  They had a replica on the entire facility in miniature.  I saw how they were undressed, made to stand under the shower heads only to be gassed.  The bodies are then collected, if they had gold teeth, they will be taken, then the bodies are incinerated in the ovens.  Sometimes the oven brokedown and the Nazis had the jews who were not killed drag the bodies out in the open and there will be a bonfire.  One time it was so hot, the nearby train tracks warped in the heat. 

The gassing took less than an hour.  It was a systematic genocide.

This is a sample barracks where the prisoners of concentration camps had to stay.

Barracks from the Nazi Death Camps 

in it they had the actual bunks of a concentration camp.  They even had actual videos of medical experiments conducting by the Nazi scientists to their prisoners.  It was sick and twisted.  But I had to watch it.  They had several graphic videos but the devised a way that the television monitors were “buried” in these concrete boxes with no lid so adults or people tall enough can just lean on the ledge and watch.

There were some gruesome executions caught on camera.  There were photogrpahs flashed in the monitor like this Latvian guy beating the heads of Jewish men with a thick iron rod.  The jews lost consciousness only to be revived by cold water and to be beaten up again.  Amidst the heaps of the bodies and the rivers of blood, the Latvian man just started to play the accordion.

Or how this group of women were rounded up and stripped and shot to a pit.  i saw a little girl holding on to her mom while the pistol is just about to make its entrance to the frame.  Or how about this woman begging fo her life naked?

These are scenes of inhumanity I wish never to witness in actuality.   

One of the most gut-wrenching part of the exhibit was about the children.  There was a box of needles and buttons on display.  it was given to this little girl before she escaped to Great Britain by her parents whom she never saw again.  they put on display the artworks done by the children while incarcerated in the concentration camps.  there were great collages, crayon work but one work almost made me cry.

It was a needlework by a girl.  She used what looks like a piece of ledger paper, you know the type accountants use, and she has sown pretty flowers.  It was so colorful and full of life.  Remember, the death camps were always muddy and bleak and one survivor said that when she was liberated, she saw some lillies and forgot that such beauty existed.  

there were photos of children who were recently liberated and managed to still smile after the Nazi blood bath.  One photo in particular made me well up with tears of a little boy who was wearing tattered soes, too big for him, as he clutches a new pair of shoes given to him by the Red Cross or by the liberators.  He trew back his tiny head and laughed out loud holding the new pair of shoes close to his heart.

There were video testimonials of the concentration camp survivors.  There was this one lady who witnessed as a young girl how people were lined outside the gas chambers.  Somehow they knew that they shall be executed.  the condemned look up in the sky and praised “Ani Ma’amim.”

I believe.

Place for reflection

At the end of the exhibition is a vast hall with an eternal flame where soil from the concentration camps are buried.  The names of the major camps line the wall  with votive candles flickering about.

The Musuem asked children in the 1990s to make art for their walls.  Tiles were painted and mounted.  they give life in an otherwise depressing and dreary memorial.

Tiles decorated with Children's art

i saw this tile and had to take a shot.

True words!!!!

True words, indeed.

One of the best installations in the perminant collection was this tower of photographs.  It was from a Shtetl in Vilna, Lithuania.  A shtetl is a place for the Jewish community.  Before we entered the chambers of horrors on how they were persecuted, we had to enter this tunnel with high walls of photos of stoic babies, happy faces, portraits of a young rabbi.

It was also one of the last things we get to see as we exit the exhibition.  We pass by the tower of photos, again, as we lumber out spent and emotionally drained.

A tower of photographs 

The significance of this tower of photos?  Well these photographs were taken by four different photographers from 1890 to 1940.  These were the people who were eradicated by a pogrom in which they were savagely attacked, killed or driven out.  Tht shtetl has been in Vilna for almost 900 years.  it took just two day to wipe it off the map.

I appreciated the history and lessons i picked up in thismemorial.  there were so much more but i could not put them all into writing.  I am disturbed that it was as if we never learn our lesson. 

Ten years ago, Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutus were in a bloody clash.  A Turkish writer writing about and being critical of Turkey’s genocide decades past can land him/her in prison.  As I type this, several Sudanese are in hellish conditions, raped, dismembered and emotionally scarred, driven from their homes by a system that abhors them.  Who knows what hatred is boiling out there?

This memorial is a testament that we should not let this happen again; that only history and remembrance can prevent humanity into backsliding into a pool of torment and torture.  Frankly, i am grateful for being able to visit this memorial.

Growing up, I ammassed literature like the Hasidic tales of the Holocaust.  Elie Wiesel‘s Night was the book i read after my father died.  i could totally relate to their father-son dynamics in the time of the holocuast as they were suffering in a concentration camp.  i needed wisdom and comfort and Wiesel’s words gave me those in my dark time of loss.

i know i did not suffer as they did.  But Elie Wiesel’s words ring in my head, “For the living and the dead, we MUST bear witness.” 

By the way, I mentioned earlier that I got an identification card before i started the tour.  I was rushing to a closing elevator and just picked the first card I saw.  It was the story of a certain Karl Gorath.  He was born on December 12, 1912 in Bad Zwischenahn, Germany.  His story goes:

1933-39: I was 26 when my jealous lover denounced me and i was arrested at my house under paragraph 175 of the criminal code, which defined homosexuality as an “unnatural” act.  Though this law had been on the books for years, the azis had broadened its scope and used it as grounds to make amass arrests of homosexuals.  I was imprisoned at Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg where “175ers” had to wear a pink triangle.

1940-44:  Because I’d had some training as a nurse, i was transferred to work at the prisoner hospital at the Wittenberg subcamp.  One day, a guard ordered me to decrease the bread ration for the patients who were Polish war prisoners, but i refused, telling him that it was inhuman to treat Poles that way.  As punishment, I was sent to Auschwitz, and this time, rather than being marked as a “175er,” I wore the red triangle of a political prisoner.  At Auschwitz I had a lover who was Polish; his name was Zbigniew.

Karl was liberated in Auschwitz in 1945.  After the war he had difficulty because of his record of having been convicted under paragraph 175.

I am meant to be here.  I am meant to get that card.

I am meant to respect and impart memory.



  1. This entry of yours is perhaps one of the most poignant I have ever read, and made me cry.

  2. Hello Diva,
    I landed on you spot thru Apo’s link. This is the first entry i read upon stumbling here and it is a very poignant entry. For one thing, the entry was written with, shall i say, in a very personal perspective. I know this is an understatement but it is really nice.

    funny, i also have a ‘dark affinity’ with the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. Mine started when i was still a grade schooler and read the Diaries of Anne Frank. Until now i still cry when i read it. I even considered going to cambodia, to visit the memorial there and secondarily for the angkor wat. Oh well, i’ll see you around.


  3. dear aiosoba, who’s apo? he is known as eypooh in this cyber-reality baby! hahahaha and besides, apo is so butch, he is more of a pooh, that’s why he is ey-pooh. bwahahaha

    i skipped the killing fields when I went to cambodia, i simply can’t go there. i was reading about it and I had nightmares for a week. much more if I can actually taste the place, nah, i can not go there.


  4. […] ignorance is the true culprit for genocides. I just remember the feeling of profound grief when I went to the Holocaust Musuem last October. And I reminded myslef that an assertion of strength is not by force, not by casting stones, not […]

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