On January 27, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The United Nations has named January 27th as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, and all the other innocent victims of World War II. In addition to the deaths of more than six million Jews, millions more Gypsies, gays and other ‘undesirables’ died at the hands of the Nazis, and millions more innocent civilians were slaughtered by Stalin. Plus, of course, all the uniformed armed forces and citizens on both sides who lost their lives in the fighting.
The hope is that through remembering these events, people will remember the Holocaust and prevent genocide elsewhere. Sadly, there has been plenty of genocide since, in Cambodia, Ruanda, Sudan. So how are you spending the day on January 27th? Hopefully by remembering, perhaps even going to a museum which commemorates the horrors of war, and of genocide. Here are some suggestions:
The National WWII Museum, New Orleans — This is the only Congressionally designated WWII museum in the United States, recognizing the entire war effort. Why New Orleans? Because this is where the famous Higgins boats were built — the crucial landing craft used in Normandy on the D-Day Invasion and other battles. There are galleries dedicated to all branches of U. S. Armed Forces active in WWII, including the Army, Army Air Corps, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. Through April, there is a special exhibit on the Jewish men and women who joined the American military during World War Two.
Yad Vashem, Jerusalem — Probably the most famous Jewish Museum in the world, this is a gut-wrenching experience. A room of shoes, a room of shorn hair, a wall of names, more walls of photos. You can search for names of victims of the Shoah. Yad Vashem is hosting a virtual “I Remember” event. Sign up on Facebook and your name will be linked to the name of a Holocaust victim in the database. Perhaps it will be the name of my father’s brother or another member of my father’s extended family who did not, or could not, get out of Germany in time.
Jewish Museum, Berlin — Exhibits focus on 2,000 years of Jewish history, but most especially the decades immediately before the Nazis. The newer part of the museum, designed by renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind, is especially disconcerting, since there are no right angles anywhere. Floors are tilted, walls are tilted, windows are too high for anything but a tiny shaft of light. It’s all meant to disorient you and make you feel the isolation and terror concentration inmates must have felt. And I did when I visited.
Memorials to genocide in Africa and Asia
Although January 27th recognizes the Holocaust, I’m sure the United Nations will forgive me for including these other memorials to genocide that are important to remember, in the hopes such horrors will never happen again.
Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Kigali, Rwanda — This opened in April 2004, on the 10th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. The Centre is built on a site where more than 250,000 people are buried. Their graves are a clear reminder of the cost of ignorance and hate. The museum includes a room of clothes and a gallery of photographs of children who were slaughtered.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phonm Penh — This museum, in the capital city of Cambodia, is a former high school that was used as a secret prison by the notorious Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge during the genocide that became known as The Killing Fields. As many as 30,000 prisoners may have been held here, and photographed before they disappeared.