I had a full-circle moment a few days ago when I entered the industrial steel-encased elevator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A fellow teacher and I had travelled to Washington, D.C. on a school trip with a group of twenty-four grade twelve English and Literature Studies students who were eager to explore the museum for the first time. It was our first stop. This was my third visit to the USHMM, but I was no less excited. Tucked into the pocket of my travel purse I had a copy of my recently published book. Instead of following my students through the Hall of Witness to the elevator that would bring them to the permanent exhibition space, I veered left past the Museum Shop into a long corridor. Only three years earlier I had taken this exact route to the museum’s library and archives.
In the summer of 2012, my family had decided to take a trip to Washington. We were seven: my husband, two children, parents, mother-in-law and me. This was no usual family trip; the central purpose was to fulfill my father’s long-time desire to view the displays and artifacts of the museum. It seemed appropriate to travel together as my father and I had just completed six months of interview sessions in which he described his personal experiences as a prisoner in Stutthof Concentration Camp.
We arrived on a Wednesday morning, entering the light-filled Hall of Witness with its steel-beamed structure, red-brick walls and glass ceilings. For some reason, my father was drawn to two women sitting at a long table at the far end of the hall. Both were volunteers, survivors of Nazi concentration camps, and ready to discuss their experiences with visitors. Within minutes, my father was treating these ladies as long-lost friends. We quickly learned that one, Nesse Godin, had also been at Stutthof at the age of sixteen, the same age my father was when he was imprisoned. My father’s wide smile was matched only by the tears forming in his eyes. A bitter-sweet meeting that could only be attributed to serendipity: Nesse only volunteered on Wednesday mornings. Although she had met many other survivors visiting the museum over the years, she said it was a rare surprise to meet other Stutthof survivors: very few lived through that horrendous camp.
My father and I explored the museum for many hours, stopping to read every description, view historic films and survey survivors’ documents. A solemn, reflective tone pervaded the space. My father supplemented the museum’s displays by providing details about his own experiences, contrasting and comparing what he saw there with what he intimately knew and felt. Most powerfully, he pointed to a dimly lit reddish-brown cattle car dominating the space.
“This is the kind of train that brought us from Danzig to Stutthof,” he said, stunned to see the sizeable car in the middle of a room in a Washington museum. It had been donated by the Polish government when the museum was built almost twenty years earlier and craned into the building. In a daze, my father walked toward the gaping door. He paused, staring into the dark space before him.
“Aarne, you don’t have to go through,” my mother-in-law said. “You can go around.”
He shook his head and stepped into the cattle car. When he emerged on the other side, out of the darkness of the cattle car, his eyes brimmed with tears and his hands shook. It was such a powerful moment.
We walked under the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, an ironic counsel to the prisoners of Auschwitz that work would make them free, when in fact it killed them systematically. In the next room, the bunk beds from Auschwitz stood on display. My father, a carpenter by trade, measured them with his long arms, explaining how they differed from the narrower three-tiered bunks in Stutthof. Each display reminded him of his own life in the camp. His stories flowed, filled with the emotion of a painful past. By the end of the day we were exhausted, both physically and emotionally. But it was important. For all of us.
The next day, while others visited the sites of Washington, I returned to the museum, this time to visit the library. I needed to find anything I could about Stutthof. Vincent, the librarian, directed me to the stacks housing information about this Polish concentration camp, the first to be built by the Germans outside of Germany, and the last to be liberated. There were few books to be found. Many were in Polish and I already possessed some of the English books. Vincent helped me find the correct volume of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos and we copied the section on Stutthof. Unfortunately, there was nothing about the Finnish sailors in Stutthof except a brief mention in a Polish survivor’s memoir.
When I was done my research, painstakingly copying notes and tucking my photocopies into my laptop bag, Vincent and I chatted. I described my project and he was enthusiastic. He encouraged me to contact the library when the project was done. “We’d love a copy,” he’d said.
Three years later I was back in the museum. As my students trailed each other through the displays, just as I had done with my father, I pulled my book from my purse, clutching it to my chest as the elevator rose to the fifth floor. The library was just as it had been, a bright, quiet space filled with stacks of books, several individuals reading at the wooden tables with books strewn before them. A friendly man greeted me at the desk and I explained my purpose.
The librarian’s eyes widened and a grin spread across his face. “We were planning to order your book for the library,” he said. I’m sure I looked surprised. Earlier I had contacted the Museum Shop about the possibility of carrying the book, but I hadn’t notified the library, knowing I would be arriving in a few days. I preferred to deliver the book in person. “You must have worked with Vincent,” the librarian said. “I’m sure he’ll remember your project.”
Passing the book across the desk was as satisfying a moment as placing the finished book in my father’s hands for the first time. When I handed the book to my father, it was an acknowledgement of all he had gone through and the significance of his experiences. His story would never be forgotten by our family. When I handed the book to the librarian, it was like giving it to the world. Another witness had come forward to share the most painful experiences of his life in hopes that others could learn from his past. In both of those moments, I was proud to know I played my part in sharing my father’s story.
Much of my work had started in this very library. It was gratifying to know I could give something back. Maybe someone else, sometime in the future, will seek information about Stutthof or the Finnish sailors imprisoned there. Perhaps they will pause when they read the spine of my book and flip through the pages before sitting down at one of those long tables to learn more, just as I had done years earlier with the memoirs of other survivors.
When I met my students after their tour of the museum I recognized the looks on their faces. They were moved by what they had seen. They had learned more in that morning than I could have taught in a semester. After visiting several more museums and sites in Washington, many confessed the Holocaust museum was their favourite. It was difficult to explain, they said. It was so powerful, so emotional. So important.