Planning a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.? Here’s my guide to the Holocaust Museum. I give you an overview of the museum, tell you what to see inside, and give you must know tips for visiting.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the top attractions in Washington D.C. It’s definitely worth visiting.
The Museum is a living memorial to the Holocaust, one of the world’s most horrific tragedies. It’s a place for somber reflection on man’s inhumanity to man.
Founded in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is a modern museum that captures the visceral memories of a nightmare. It shines a harrowing light on the insane megalomania and brutality of the Nazi party, who stole not just lives but identities.
With unflinching eye-opening detail, the museum documents the rise of the Nazi party and its atrocities. It reveals the demonic not in a grandiose way, but in the most minute bone chilling details.
The centerpiece of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is its permanent exhibition, simply titled The Holocaust. The exhibit covers three floors. There are artifacts, photographs, and films that give the viewer a chronological telling of the tragedy.
Each floor covers a different era. Along the way, you will see personal objects that belonged to survivors, as well as hear eyewitness testimonies. The exhibits explore how Hitler and the Nazis come to power and why Jews were singled out for persecution and extermination.
Visiting this sober museum is a profound experience. You need to be in the right frame of mind to visit. You will tread slowly through unspeakable and incomprehensible evil.
You’ll see images of mob-murdered bodies in pits, living skeletons, and dismembered corpses. You may experience feelings of horror, outrage, and disgust at the unchecked hate on display. It’s a gripping and emotional experience where you can almost feel the evil.
As the museum and a Holocaust survivor remind you, “It happened. Therefore it can happen again. And it can happen everywhere.”
The museum’s architecture, based on camp architecture, intentionally reinforces the grim mood. The museum is essentially a stark industrial factory.
There are exposed crisscrossed steel trappings, harsh brick walls, metal railings, barriers, steel gates, and screens. The main staircase narrows in a way that’s akin to a receding train heading into a death camp.
What Is The Holocaust? A Short History
The holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and murder of European Jewry. It was a genocidal reign of terror that occurred over a 12 year period between 1933 and 1945.
Jews were dehumanized and exterminated with firing squads, gas wagons, and concentration camp killing centers. They were cremated in ovens.
How did the Holocaust happen? It began with the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933. Upon achieving power, Hitler smashed Germany’s democratic institutions and transformed the country into a war state.
Though he was a shrewd politician, Hitler couldn’t have done it on his own. He had the active support of the powerful German officer class. Moreover, he came into power in a democratic way.
Hitler was voted into office by everyday citizens, during a time of universal discontent. They saw Hitler and his policies as the way out of the country’s economic woes stemming from its defeat in WWI and the burdensome Treaty of Versailles.
Hitler’s managerial genius revived Germany. His military spending and ambitious public works projects helped restore German prosperity.
The economic recovery, along with a hefty dose of propaganda, led Hitler to be viewed as an infallible messiah. He had the absolute support of millions of fanatical disciples.
An anti-semitic Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German or “Aryan” race. He wanted “Lebensraum,” or living space, for the German race to colonize and expand.
To achieve this Aryan society, Hitler sought to “cleanse” Germany of anyone he considered an undesirable or a threat to Germany’s racial purity.
Jews were the primary targeted undesirables. But the hit list also included minority groups like the Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, Roma people, political dissidents, and the mentally ill or disabled.
Hitler’s gangsterism began with an aggressive campaign of marginalization, persecution, and oppression. Jews and others lost legal rights and were stripped of degrees. Their businesses were liquidated. Synagogues and Jewish shops were sacked.
Hitler first tried expelling Jews or isolating them in segregated ghettos. There were over 1,000 ghettos in Nazi Germany. Many Jews died from cold, starvation, and illness.
Hitler also used the Nazi party rallies to demonize his enemies. At the 1935 party rally, Hitler ordered the Reichstag to adopt the Nuremberg Laws. They stripped German citizenship from all Jews and forbid Germans to marry or associate with non-Aryans.
WWII began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. One of the Nazis’ first acts in occupied Poland was the creation of ghettos.
Beginning in 1942, Hitler embarked on what the Nazis called the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question.” Germany became a genocidal state.
The ghettos were emptied and Jews were deported to concentration camps. The camps were either killing centers or slave labor camps, sometimes both.
Prisoners were gassed to death with the pesticide Zyklon B or shot by roving killing trucks. If they weren’t gassed, they died of starvation, disease, or overwork. The death rate for European Jews in Nazi camps and ghettos was a staggering 90 percent.
Though the Nazis tried to keep the death camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Over 6 million Jews lost their lives, along with a half million others.
Hitler finally fell to the Allies in 1945 and committed suicide. The museum gives you a timeline of the war, but doesn’t dwell on the battles. The focus is always on Hitler’s victims.
In an effort to punish the villains of the Holocaust, the Allies held the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46. The trials brought Nazi atrocities into horrifying light.
Increasing pressure on the Allied powers to create a homeland for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Overview & Highlights Of The Holocaust Memorial Museum
The idea for the Holocaust Memorial Museum began in 1978. It was the brain child of three people in the Carter administration: Stuart Eizenstat, Mark Siegel, and Ellen Goldstein.
Based on their recommendations, President Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. He asked its members to recommend a suitable memorial.
The commission was chaired by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. The commission recommended not a memorial, but a museum and education center.
Wiesel wanted to share the conviction that “when war and genocide unleash hatred against any one people or peoples, all are ultimately engulfed in the fire.”
1. Entering the Museum
To visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, you need to pre-book a timed slot entry. Do it well in advance as the museum is routinely sold out. If you can’t get a time slot, you still might be able to get into the museum, if there are no shows for that day.
When you enter, you’ll have your ticket scanned and go through security. You’ll be given an Identification Card that details the personal story of a Holocaust victim.
Elevators take you up to the fourth floor of the museum, where the exhibit begins. You can take the elevator or stairs down to the third and second floors. The exhibits are in chronological order and give a comprehensive historical narrative.
These are some of the most moving exhibits:
- the Tower of Faces, portraits of Lithuanians killed in the Holocaust
- diorama of the Auschwitz death camp and crematorium
- bridge with names of erased communities
- bridge with names of vanished persons
- mountain of stolen shoes
- rail car for deportations
- Warsaw Ghetto milk can used to hide art and artifacts
- photo of bales of female hair, shorn by the Nazis and sold for profit
2. 4th Floor: The Nazi Assault, 1933-39
The opening floor explores the rise of Nazism in 1933 through the outbreak of WWII in 1939. You’re essentially immersed in the world that led to the Holocaust. You see how the powerful tools of a totalitarian state allowed racism to flourish.
Initially, Hitler’s party was discounted as a radical fringe group. Conservatives underestimated him. Liberals were also naive. Anti-democratic forces prevailed, with the Nazis becoming the largest political group.
This portion of the museum explores the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies, racial science, and Nazi medicine. It explores turning points in the Holocaust such as the Nuremberg Race Laws, Kristallnacht, and the Invasion of Poland.
Everything is documented with black and white photographs. There are films of Nazi rallies, posters, newspaper articles, and recordings of Hitler’s speeches.
The pivotal events included book burning. In 1933, over 25,000 Jewish-authored books were burned in the Opera Square of Berlin. They were deemed un-German, heralding an era of state censorship.
Organized by Joseph Goebbels, there are several exhibits on “Kristallnacht.” This was a horrible event that occurred in 1938. It was a Nazi-coordinated attack on thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Germany.
Known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis portrayed the highly organized pogroms as a spontaneous public outburst of rage after the assassination of a German diplomat.
This floor is also where you’ll find the Tower of Faces, the heart of the Holocaust Museum. There are over 1,000 faces in a three story room lined with vintage photographs. They were collected by Dr. Yaffa Eliach between 1890-1940.
The pre-war photos show regular people happily going about their daily lives. They were from a single town in Lithuania, Ejszjszki, where Jewish culture once flourished for 900 years.
You look at them and eventually realize that the room is shaped like a chimney, a chimney of death.
You’ll also find maps showing Germany’s gradual conquest of Europe.
And Hugh Jaeger’s propaganda photos of Hitler and the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. Jaeger was Hitler’s personal photographer, who buried his photos to save them and then sold them to Life Magazine.
3. Third Floor: The Final Solution, 1940-45
On the museum’s third floor, you are confronted with the grisliest part of the museum, “The Final Solution.” This was the code name for the Nazis’ mass murder of 6 million Jews and other innocents.
The museum exhibits examine the evolution of Nazi policy, from ghettoization to mobile shooting squads to mass murder in gas chambers. You’ll see scenes from ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, Kovno, and Minsk, among others. You’ll learn about the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943.
On this floor, visitors will discover the true nature of the concentration camps, the exploitation of the workers, and the forced sterilization of Jews.
You’ll encounter primary source artifacts, information on the invasion of the Soviet Union, photos of deportations of Jews to camps, and oral testimonies from Auschwitz.
There are artifacts such as a freight car used to transport Jews to concentration camps and a cast of the gate to Auschwitz.
You can actually walk through the freight car. As many as 100 Jews were packed into a single car for deportation to death camps.
Once they arrived, their belongings were confiscated. The Jews were tattooed, crammed into barracks, and given only a few hundred calories a day. They were subject to beatings, torture, scientific experiments, and sterilization.
One of the most moving exhibits is a mountain of 4,000 shoes stolen from Jews, including baby shoes. The shoes are from the Majdenak Camp in Lublin Poland.
The shoes were all that was left, a personal remnant of lives, piled one on top of the other.
There’s also a wall photo of bales of hair shorn from the heads of female prisoners, which is on display in the Auschwitz museum. The Nazis did a brisk business by selling the hair for profit to textile manufacturers.
There’s also a scale model of the Auschwitz gas chamber and crematorium, which is especially creepy.
You’ll also see rocks from the Staircase of Death in Mauthausen Concentration camp. Prisoners hauled ultra heavy stones up the staircase. They often fell or were pushed to their death by guards.
Another disturbing exhibit is a film of Nazis experimenting on and mutilating prisoners. There’s a warning sign up because of the horrific nature of it.
4. Second Floor: The Last Chapter
The abject bleakness of the Holocaust Museum is somewhat leavened on the museum’s final second floor. It chronicles events in the last chapter of the Nazi regime — Hitler’s fall, the final liberation of Jews from the death camps, the aftermath of the war, and the lasting legacy of the Holocaust.
There’s a timeline of Nazi Germany’s disintegration, the Allied victory, and the quest to impose justice at the Nuremberg Trials.
From November 1946 to October 1946, the Allies put Nazi henchmen on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Trial transcripts were published so citizens could learn about the horror of the crimes and pain of the victims. After the trials, international laws prohibiting such crimes were promulgated.
You’ll find some uplifting episodes of the heroic resistance efforts to the Nazis. For example, Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon was a village in southern France that provided refuge to 5,000 Jews during WW II.
You’ll find an exhibit dedicated to the children of the Holocaust. Children were especially vulnerable in the Holocaust. The Nazis advocated killing children of “unwanted” or “dangerous” groups either as part of the “racial struggle” or as a measure of “preventative security.”
Camp authorities sent young Jewish children directly to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz and other killing centers.
At the end of this floor, visitors can sit in a theater and watch eyewitness testimonials from Holocaust survivors in the film Testimony. They speak to the issues of survival, rescue, and resistance.
5. Hall of Remembrance
The Hall of Remembrance is a quiet space with the names of concentration camps etched on its walls. This large solemn room is used for both public ceremonies and quiet reflection.
There’s a beautiful skylight. It’s a hexagonal space meant to evoke the Star of David badge, which Nazis forced Jews to wear.
Guests are invited to light memorial candles and to read the inscription on the eternal flame that’s the focal point of the room.
There’s a passage from the Torah, from the book of Deuteronomy:
“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”
6. Burma’s Path to Genocide
In 2017, there was violence against the Muslim minority group Rohingya in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Some 700,000 people were forced to flee for their lives.
This Holocaust Museum exhibit explores how the Rohingya went from citizens to outsiders and became targets of a sustained campaign of genocide. The exhibition features audio, video, photography, and first person testimony.
7. Special Exhibition: Americans And The Holocaust
This exhibition is on the first floor of the museum when you enter. It’s in the Simon Kimmel and Rena Rowan Exhibition Gallery.
It explores America’s role in the holocaust. American was a society plagued with with isolationism, racism and xenophobia.
America wasn’t a military superpower yet, and American citizens were anti-war. These conditions and motives shaped our country’s response to WWII.
The exhibit raises uncomfortable questions. What did Americans know? Could we have done more to stop the Holocaust? Why wasn’t rescuing Jews targeted or murder a significant priority?
You’ll see a timeline of historical displays on the coverage of Nazi Germany through American newspapers, newsreels, and film. They convey the mounting pressure for the US to respond, as Hitler’s bloody campaign peaked.
Each section contains interactive displays, photos, videos, documents, and short documentaries on wartime views of Nazism.
You’ll come away learning that some Americans were also anti-Semitic, just not on the intense scale of Germany. You’ll learn that while Americans themselves weren’t sure that Nazism led to the mass murder, more could have been done to save lives.
For example, polls consistently showed that 2/3 of Americans disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews. But they simultaneously didn’t want to let more refugees into the country.
Americans only joined the war effort after the bombing in Pearl Harbor and when the German advance made the threat seem closer.
This exhibit takes at least 30 minutes. If you don’t have time for it on your visit, click here for the online exhibit.
8. Sculptures In The Holocaust Museum
The museum is home to some memorial sculptures by some of the world’s greatest modern artists.
On the third floor, you’ll find four white wall sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly. They’re collectively titled Memorial. They’re situated in the museum’s well-lit lounge. The pieces are a sharp contrast to the dimly-lit space exhibition spaces.
Gravity is a 12 foot square slab of steel by Richard Serra. The monolithic sculpture is near the granite wall at the bottom of the stairs in the Hall of Witness. The sculpture intentionally disrupts the space, forcing a separation in the flow of visitors as they descend the stairs.
At the entrance plaza to the museum, you’ll see Joel Shapiro’s Loss and Regeneration. The two piece bronze sculpture reflects the tragedy of lives interrupted and ruined by the Holocaust.
The work is a dialogue between an abstract tree-like form suggesting a person and a house-like structure tipped upside down. The pair communicate precariousness and collapse as well as rise and recovery.
Practical Information & Tips For Visiting the Holocaust Museum
Location: The Holocaust is on the National Mall. It’s just south of Independence Avenue SW, between 14th Street and Raoul Wallenberg Place SW. Its official address is 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, Washington, DC 20024.
Security: You’ll have to go through airport-type security to enter the museum.
Hours: The museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:20 pm. It’s closed on Yom Kippur and Christmas Day.
Entry Fee: The museum is free. But you need to pre-book a time slot online for a $1 fee.
Metro: Smithsonian on the orange, blue, and silver lines.
How Long to visit the Holocaust Museum:
The Holocaust Museum is an incredibly popular tourist attraction in Washington D.C. But the length of your visit depends entirely on how much reading you do and how much video you listen to.
On my second visit, I was there for 2.5 hours and felt like I could easily have filled another hour or more. If you want to visit the Burma exhibit or other temporary exhibits, add another hour.
When budgeting your time at the museum, be aware that it will take you awhile just to get into the permanent exhibit. You have to go through security.
Then, you’ll get in a line to wait for an elevator near the information desk. Because of pandemic restrictions, only your immediate family group can go on a single elevator. This means it could take awhile to get an elevator, and they’re terribly slow.
Pro Tips: Certain parts of the museum, including the resource center, the library, and reading rooms are closed for now.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Holocaust Museum. You may enjoy these other East Coast U.S. city guides and resources:
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