On One Foot: Reflections from the Museum of Tolerance

Maya Lyubomirsky is a third year at UCI studying English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She can be contacted at mlyubomi@uci.edu, and is open to other writing opportunities.

The day we visited the Museum of Tolerance was sunny and clear. The air smelled sweet, despite it being Los Angeles, and the walk to the park where we were to have lunch was pleasant. Among our group, a couple of students were carrying trays laden with Subway sandwiches and cookies while one dragged a cooler full of water bottles.

As we walked, I couldn’t help but feel guilty, thinking about how we were going to enjoy a nice lunch in a beautiful park next to a Jewish preschool just minutes after listening to a Holocaust survivor tell us his story. It wasn’t the first time I had these thoughts, and I knew that they were unfair to people living in the present. Besides, they were easy to dismiss once we settled down at a table and popped open the hard plastic lid from the sandwich box.

After everyone had finished their first round of sandwiches and had a chance at seconds, our Hillel leader Shelby asked us,

“So… what did you guys think of the trip?”

There was a pause before people began to speak. We all agreed that it was disturbing and emotional, yet also managed to inspire and provoke thought. Parts of it were hopeful, yet others didn’t sit well with us. It certainly wasn’t what I expected.

The tour guide started our tour by giving us each a plastic ID card with a photo of a child, telling us that it was the face of a real Jewish child who had lived in Germany during the Holocaust. We were to learn details about our child, then hang on to the card until the end of the tour, when we were to learn our child’s fate. Shelby had told me about this in the car, while debriefing me on what to expect.

“Just a heads up… most of the kids don’t survive.” She winced.

The exhibit was designed to take us on a sort of “journey through time” from pre-WW2 Germany until the Jews’ liberation, presumably to put visitors in the shoes of Holocaust victims. For me, it had the chilling effect of making me feel as if my Hillel friends and I were being led to our deaths. The tour guide herded us into a darkened room and closed the door behind us, shutting us into what felt like a tunnel of death and despair. I began to panic, temporarily forgetting where I really was, but managed to calm myself down. The first part of the tour was meant to give us historical context for the Holocaust by giving us information on Hitler and the situation in Germany at the time. It was educational, informative, and definitely upsetting. Despite Shelby’s warning, I wasn’t prepared to be led through a gate replicating the one at Auschwitz, to have to choose between walking through a tunnel labelled either “Able-Bodied” or “Women and Children,” or to have to watch videos about gas chambers in a room modelled after a gas chamber. At that point, my feelings of mild fear transformed into anger. I understood the purpose of this exhibit: to give people a taste of the fear and despair that these unfortunate people went through. Yet, considering we were a group of Jews ourselves, it seemed somewhat cruel.

In the park, away from the discomfort, I was able to digest my experience in the safety of sunshine and company of friends. What did I think about it? I wasn’t sure.

At the end of the tour, there was a small display of plaques with stories of non-Jews, Germans and Christians, who endangered their lives to help the Jews. I read them all while people fed their fake IDs into the machines that printed out a report of their child’s fate. I felt lots of things throughout the exhibit: fear, horror, and pain, but I never felt sad. Yet, reading about those few acts of kindness, maybe 20 in comparison to millions of acts of cruelty, my eyes filled with tears and my heart filled with hope.

“Maya!” I heard someone call my name. I turned to see Shelby waving me over to the machines. Everyone else was already walking into the other room.

“Quick, get your printout and follow us.” She said. I stuck my card into the machine, grabbed the papers that shot out, and skimmed them, holding my breath.

My child lived.

 

If you are interested in writing for the OC Hillel Blog contact Daniel Levine at Daniel@ochillel.org