Travelling through three different countries in two weeks required a lot of grit and stamina, but it also gave me the opportunity to compare a few different cities, modes of transportation, and cultures. It allowed me to view and compare many different museums as well, and I particularly focused on the strategies different nations used to recount the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII. The British Imperial War Museum, the Caen Memorial Museum in France, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland each addressed the tragic history in slightly different ways depending on their proximity to the events and their perceived audience.
The Imperial War Museum offered the English perspective on the events of World War II and included a section on the Holocaust that was surprisingly larger than any other portion of the museum. This museum reminded me of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in that it provided considerable background about German history and Hitler’s rise to power before describing the different groups who were persecuted over time and the terrible fates these groups met either in civil society or Nazi camps. The material was engaging and offered a general idea of the experience of the victims, but the museum was clearly designed for people who had no background in studying the Holocaust and focused less on individual towns and people than on big picture statistics and ideas.
The French exhibit on the Holocaust in the Caen Memorial Museum was more specific and personalized than the exhibit in England was. It offered less general background information and told many individual stories instead, making the history feel closer to home. This is likely because the curators assumed prior knowledge of the Holocaust from the museum’s visitors. France was occupied by the Nazis during the war, and the population was affected by deportations firsthand – presumably this history is taught to new generations in schools and through family memories. The exhibit is also within the larger WWII exhibit in the museum, rather than having its own unique section, implying that France remembers the Holocaust as an integral part of the war, as opposed to a separate but parallel part of world history. This museum was more emotional than the British museum because it was more personalized, and it still included a lot of important information about different people who were brutalized and the various methods the Nazis used in their war for “racial purity.”
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum solely revolved around the evils that occurred at the infamous death camp, and while this museum’s focus was incredibly narrow, it was by far the most heartbreaking. Poland sponsored this state museum to allow visitors to get a glimpse into the terrible conditions that people were forced to live and work under in the concentration camp. We were able to see where over one million people lived, worked and were killed, whether passively, from starvation or illness for example, or actively, by torture, gassing, hanging, or any number of other cruel and unusual methods. Walking through Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the earth itself felt calm, and I could not reconcile how the quiet area once held embodiment of human misery and evil.
The panels and tour guide were informative about the events that had occurred there, but the energy of the place, and especially the exhibits that had been set up housing the detritus left behind after the evacuation of the camp, were more telling of what had happened than any words could ever be. A volume of suitcases, children’s clothing, prayer shawls, hygiene products, crutches and artificial limbs, and even human hair were displayed throughout the old barracks in Auschwitz I. These exhibits all spoke to the magnitude of barbarity at Auschwitz and the sheer waste of life.
Seeing just a fraction of the worldly possessions a few victims left behind helped me imagine the camp’s enormity. What would have happened if those people had lived and had children? What if everyone had been allowed to work, rather than most people being systematically killed upon arrival? So many preferable different outcomes spiraled through my head, and this was just one camp. What about the other camps, and the ghettos, and the villages overrun by Nazis? The mix of anger and despair and hopelessness I felt was almost unbearable, and while this museum had the fewest words dedicated to explaining the details of the Holocaust, the remains of the abandoned camp system were enough to make me understand and loath the truth of the mass murder more than I ever had before.
Each museum was key in helping its respective audience better understand the terrible truth of the Holocaust. Moving closer to the largest site of mass murder with each new city allowed me to better understand how the international community differs in its attempts to guarantee remembrance of the Holocaust. It is essential to ensure that people never forget what happened to the Nazis targets of cruelty, for those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it as they say, and museums like the ones we visited help prevent people from denying or downplaying the traumatic events of the Holocaust.