I spent Thursday, January 22, 2009, inside the impressive D.C. must-see,
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the week I attended the historic Barack Obama Inauguration. As with all museums in Washington, my entry was free. Si, totalmente libre! While my hostesses, Bren and Mike, worked, I bowed to a calling within to visit the memorial, a museum I'd visited ten years prior, when I last found myself in our capital city, visiting my beloved first couple, Bren and Mike.
From the museum's entrance, I latched onto a small group with a diminutive Jewish survivor, knowledgeable and warm, serving as a top-notch guide, who informed us of tidbits of information unnoted on the placards under Holocaust pictures of suffering and devastation and heroism. As he narrated the story of massive destruction, his eyes glazed over here and there in the telling, and he paused, a screen we couldn't see materializing just beyond our group, and his face clouded, tears misting his vision behind tiny, oval-shaped spectacles.
"I was twelve when my parents got me out of Germany," he confessed, in voce sotto. "I came here to the United States, to be with my oldest sister, who had come much earlier, with her new husband." He faced a large, glassed display of Hitler and grim-faced flanks of the Secret Police. "That was the last time I saw my parents, my family. No one survived. All of them. Gone. It was only me and my sister."
I stared at him, trying to imagine his pain, years old, albeit forever new.
"I am sorry." He made a decent show of brushing sorrow into his cheeks. "I cannot ever give this tour without feeling the horror, the pain, every time. Forgive me."
I said nothing. There was nothing to forgive. The others---two men, one Black, the other white, and two Black women---were silent, all on the same accord. We waited patiently as he calmed himself and returned to his role as our guide, walking and talking.
As far as I could tell, we were thoroughly engaged. He was a master guide.
He probed our knowledge of the period, asking pointed questions, responding encouragingly, espousing asides that widened our eyes and accepting our commentary and queries with genuine care and concern.
I attached myself to the foursome on the first floor, where we entered an elevator that seemed to wail with a heavy sadness as it carried us to the fourth floor, the top of the building's famous artifacts and exhibits. Thus, the flow of our tour took us downward, as though we were advancing down through Dante's seven circles of hell, filing past one horrific scene after another, pictures of shattered families and unforgettable heroes, Jewish and German, who fought back in the best way they could, one German woman consenting to be her employer's mistress just for him to "overlook" the knowledge that Jews were being hidden on his extensive property. We trailed our guide, eyes photographing the dank, wooden, uncomfortable-looking, bare bucks of the crude housing in the death camps, bringing to my mind what it must have been like in the death-stalked hulls of slave ships carrying my Black African ancestors to America's shores.
Our guide was of the same mind.
On several occasions, he paralleled the Holocaust to the atrocity of American slavery, and when he did, the sole white member of our group chafed visibly, angrily. But our guide made no indication that he noticed, yet each time this man rankled with an American slavery comparison, I studied him. He didn't seem to mind my observation, considering he hardened and squinted, flared and cringed, disconnecting paces away and moving back into the group when he'd shirked his perturbation.
On the second floor, I decided to go it alone, not wanting to worry Bren, who was expecting my call towards four o'clock, the hour she'd be leaving the office. Noting the time on my cell's face, I determined to accelerate my tour, so, before long, I eased away from the group.
The listening booths claimed my attention. The actual voices of Holocaust survivors whispered, transporting me back through time, and via their vivid, piercing memories, I joined an enclosure of others, who, listening, vicariously faced tremendous cold, meager food, harsh cruelty and insurmountable demonstrations of love in the midst of devastation.
From there, I eventually found myself sitting on the top tier of a moderate-sized amphitheatre, where museum guests sat and watched a film of Holocaust survivors recap their mesmerizing, blessed, hair-raising escape from Nazi tyranny. I sat straight-backed, soaking in the triumphant testimonies. One woman stared out at the audience she could not see and advised us to "never give up," no matter where we found ourselves in life.
Swept up on a tide of sorrow and joy, outrageous and victorious, I couldn't help gazing around me, to catalog the reactions of fellow visitors. That was difficult to surmise. They were bunched together on lower tiers, crammed tight, almost huddled, same as they were down the bench from me, so far down the bench it was difficult to ignore.
It was as if I'd suddenly become Pepe La Pew, trailing a plume of stink. As if I were an outed Jewish woman and they German countrymen, waiting for the heart-stopping siren of the SS men to swallow me in a whirl of red. As if we were in the Old South and I were a field hand or house servant awaiting my ten minutes of fame on the auction block. As if a true African-American, Barack Obama, hadn't been elected to serve as the country's 44th president.
Yet even as I observed the white voluntary segregation and felt its presence throughout the museum, I felt myself grow taller. More compassionate. Extremely attentive to the testimonials. And I smiled and shifted my legs, making room for a smiling woman who inquired if she might sit beside me. She took in my red skull cap, smiled wider. "You make it to the Inauguration?"
There is always a ray of hope in the darkest night. "In living color, all day, in twig-cracking cold!" I chimed softly.
Blue eyes shimmered. "Me, too!"
We exchanged a few more words and then focused our attention on the film.
"Yes, we can!" I reminded myself, borrowing Barack's campaign clarion call. And until then, I, like so many others, will keep the faith, believing we, as a people in this country and around the globe, can and will rise to the mountaintop, where hatred and separatism in thought and deed will never again lead to systematic persecution and annihilation of one group by another, even though it was happening across Africa and other places as I sat in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, grateful for my trip, my beloved family and friends, the day, my experience, the woman beside me, and the open heart behind my ribs.
Yes, we will, one day...
The Golden Goddess soars.