I was lucky enough to have some free time in Washington, DC, this past Wednesday. The weather was beautiful and the mall was fairly empty. I traveled in the company of several business colleagues, many from outside the United States. Their mission was to see as much of our nation’s capital as possible.

If you ever get the chance, take a foreign tourist through Washington. Their responses to the city are amazing. It is not simply the elegant design of L’Enfant or the magnificent WPA buildings, but rather their comments on the diversity within the city and the openness. Just the fact that all the Smithsonian museums are FREE was enough for a friend from the Caribbean.

The capital takes on a whole new meaning when viewed through the eyes of a foreign visitor. I was particularly honored to hijack one mf my friends from Canada and take him through the National Archives. As we wound our way through the magnificent 1933 structure, we encountered the Magna Carta (ca 1297) and then the three crown jewels of our nation, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I jokingly pointed out that he could read the second amendment, in its original form, for himself – we have a running joke about Americans and their arms.

I did not, however, spend all my time as tour guide. Being on my own in DC gave me a rare opportunity. I went to visit the Holocaust Museum. Perched one block back from the Mall, the museum has a Victorian fortress like feel to it. It is one of the newer national museums in Washington and reflects some of the most cutting edge elements of design and composition. On previous visits to the capital, I was in the presence of the Proto-Citizens and this museum is decidedly not for children. In fact, I would recommend no visitor make the trip until the middle of high school.

I entered the building through the now ubiquitous security screening foyer. I was wanded, patted and scrutinized by several “special police”, essentially armed security guards – they are thick as flies in Washington. Upon entering the main hall, I was struck by the size of the museum and its initial emotional impact. The design recalls a factory from the period covered by the museum, essentially from 1933 through the end of the European portion of the conflict. One picks up an “identity card” from the bin adjacent to the elevator and proceeds to the fourth floor where the journey begins.

I picked from the male pile. My chosen card reflected the story of a young Jehovah’s Witness from France. He was interned and survived the conflict. Many of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were rounded up owing to their refusal to swear allegiance to the Nazi state. The journey through the building opens with the rise to power of the NASDP (Nazi) party in Germany. In a chilling representation, one begins to feel the descent into collective madness which Hitler led the world.

Moving slowly through the exhibits, the visitor is immersed in the events. Beset by photographs, first person testimonials and video, I could imagine the tightening circumstances for Jews within Germany. As one travels down through the halls, the scale of the holocaust becomes more horrible. And yet there are spots of human resistance, dignity and hope peppered in the overwhelming images of state sponsored evil.

I will not burden you with the details of the museum; suffice to say that it is comprehensive and relentless. The facility was also hosting an examination of propaganda, as exemplified in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and a look at Darfur. Both displays are extremely relevant to our modern world circumstances.

What I found most intriguing were the patrons of the museum. There were older people (folks who may have lived through the conflict that was World War II), there were younger groups (some clearly Jewish by virtue of their yarmulke) and then the most interesting of all, young military men. These young men were outfitted in what I would describe as typical off duty wear of American soldiers everywhere. Short cargo pants, polo shirts, running shoes and a gi-normous backpack (typically with a water bladder inside). These men moved quietly and reverently through the museum. They seemed most taken by the discussions and displays of the American military’s role in liberating the camps and the decision not to bomb the camps. It was in this persona, more than any other, that I felt compelled to visit this museum.

At the conclusion of the tour is a large hall of remembrance. There the names of the primary places of lass were inscribed on the wall. Votive candles flickered in alcoves along the six sided room. An eternal flame burned along one side of the stone room. As I set alight one of the candles, I reflected on what role we have played as a military and a nation in the face of events like these. In almost every instance it seems like we have not done enough.

And yet, I also take some heart in knowing that we have always done something. As a nation, we have struggled with the expenditure of our blood and treasure in service to the defenseless. But when unleashed, we have expended every ounce of each.

The visit was sad and difficult. It was also necessary and uplifting. It buoyed me to know that humanity could act to save itself. That it can learn from its mistakes and that sacrifices made for one’s fellow human are never in vain.


An eloquent dissertation on an odyssey every American should undertake. The Holocaust Museum is one of those rare moments in one's life. I remember the shoes...all the shoes.

And, it makes me miss home. To think that I could bike to all those places on a sunny spring day.

One glaring exception is the WW2 memorial, which to me mars the mall and makes it look as if the German's had won the war, so much it invokes the Reichstag. On the other hand, the Korean War Memorial, especially at night, is haunting and visionary, as is the original black slab of the Vietnam Memorial, so simple in it's eloquence and power.
Citizen Deux said…
I also found something abnout the WWII memorial lacking, however, it does (in my opinion) adequately convey the scope of the war. There were so many aspects of that conflict reflected around the city that I could hardly imagine something different.

I agree that the Korean memorial is truly haunting. I have stood amidst those figures and felt the cold desperation of the stuggle, especially in the early days of the war.
Anonymous said…
Try the DC Ducks. Fun for kids. The Navy Yard's boat tour and the Spy Museum are also good bets for kids. Rustico is good for pizza & beer and kid friendly (in Alexandria) and the Brickskellar is nice for a libation, but not for kids.

mmmm....the Brickskeller....but of course, a visit to Annie's Paramount Steakhouse (for the the steak and the stiff drinks) and Mr. Henry's on the Hill (simply to soak in the Roberta Flack Trio history) are requisite as well...
Anonymous said…
PS I was a bit put off by the bombing comments in the museum. When I went there was no mention of the reasons why the camps weren't bombed. I.e. how long before an alternative to Zyclon B was found and how does using assets to bomb camps prosecute the war? Not saying the decision was good/bad/indifferent, just that there were likely reasons adjudged valid at the time.

Anonymous said…

Citizen Deux said…
I thought the bombing explanation was worthwhile. The US had no idea whether the Nazis would use it against the Allies or if they would begin even more heinous actions.

We also didn't bomb POW camps - even though it may have released prisoners to wreak havoc in the countryside. Too much chance for chaos and retribution.
sonicfrog said…
I will go to Washington, hopefully next year, and do the historic tour. I know that when I tour the museum, I will break down and cry at some point. So be it.
Anonymous said…
Worthwhile? Yes. I just found it a bit one sided.
Citizen Deux said…
I don't think anyone could capture the complexity of that discussion in the exhibit. I found the presentation of the decision to attend the 1936 Olympics a bit skewed, however, it was illustrative of the conflict within the United States and our tendency to remain aloof from the problems outside our borders.