US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Staff exchange visit
 Kathrin di Rocco

NFSA film curator Kathrin di Rocco is taking part in an international exchange program.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC. Photo by Kathrin di Rocco

There is a heartstopping moment – no kidding, your heart stops beating – at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that is an electric blend of circumstances, excellent curatorship, powerful materials, genius design, and general alchemy.

It happens on the fourth floor of the Permanent Exhibition, which you reach via a deliberately oppressive elevator – all corroded metal and dim lighting. You take an Identification Card as you enter: you are Maria Justyna, and you were born in Poland in 1925. There is your photograph; here is your story. You are a real person and you lived during the Holocaust. As the elevator rises you feel very strongly that the doors, when they open, can’t reveal anything that will make you feel comfortable. The fourth floor is labelled ‘The Nazi Assault 1933-1939’, and the displays are strong enough to move you to tears. In fact, at various points throughout the Museum you will have to surreptitiously wipe your eyes and pull out a tissue for your drippy nose. You hear other people sniffling as well.

The exhibition on the fourth floor gradually unfolds the stages by which Jewish citizens in Nazi Germany were systematically stripped of their civil liberties, rights, status, livelihoods and freedom; and the escalating humiliations, indignities, and brutalities that were visited upon them. It is a riveting mixture of still images, moving image, documentation and artefacts. The design of the Museum is impeccable – visitors are moved cleverly from one display to the next, and it is only in turning to look back that you realise how artful is something that appears so effortless. It is something that very few museums manage to do well.
Identification card issued to visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo by Kathrin di Rocco

And so it happens that you’re shuffling down a corridor that is tight with human beings, everyone gripped by the material arrayed on either side, the lighting subdued, voices hushed – you shuffle, en masse. It is almost unbearable. But then – the corridor widens into an alcove and the crush disperses. You’re left virtually alone staring at a display and suddenly in your periphery you glimpse something that fills you with legitimate terror. To your left the way is barred by a gate – the kind of gate that you see in newsreels: a red and white wooden gate; a checkpoint. A checkpoint where you might get asked for identity papers, say. You are Maria Justyna, a young Polish girl with dark hair and dark features. And hanging over the gate are human figures.

Your heart seizes and leaps into the back of your mouth. You are filled with adrenaline. You are stricken. In that instance you are seriously, genuinely frightened of who those figures might be. You turn to look, and immediately have to turn away again. The figures are children from one of the many school groups visiting the Museum. They are not soldiers. This is not Nazi Germany. The children cling to the gate; it’s a natural resting place, a pause, and as you pass it again later from the other side you’ll see different people lingering there. But for now your heart is beating too fast. Oh, you think. Wow. Oh. You sneak another look. The children are young, maybe aged ten, and they are almost unnaturally still, their faces curiously blank. Well: this isn’t Disneyland.

I am reluctant to talk in detail about the material on display at the Museum. Not because it could rob it of its power – it couldn’t possibly; I saw things that I will never forget. But because I don’t have the words to convey what a shattering experience it was. Camera use is not allowed within the Museum except in instances where indicated; the material is sensitive in nature. Equally I can’t represent it adequately or do it justice with words. It felt like it was somehow the first time I saw colour film of the Third Reich – all those saturated blood-red Nazi flags. Could it really have been the first time I saw that?

I appreciated the nicety in the Museum’s Wexner Center of identifying the source of certain moving image on display as nitrate film, in order to explain the decomposition marks. I appreciated this both as a film curator and because of my month immersed in the L Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Identifying nitrate film delineates something that is special and precious and rare – priceless images of pre-war life – as even more special and precious and rare, an artefact in and of itself.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is located in Washington DC. Entry is free of charge.