I have been eagerly taking Jewish field trips as part of my ongoing Jewish education. The idea is that I actually experience something of Jewish life, culture, history, or theology wherever I go. I realized, however, that I have been overlooking Washington, DC, my hometown! Typical, right? You can travel to a new city and spend days schlepping about seeing the sights, but rarely do the same where you actually live.
The obvious place to go in DC is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org). It is a must-do for anyone visiting DC, Jew or Gentile. Since I’ve already been there and I found it nearly as difficult to bear as when my husband and I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in 2004, I wasn’t eager to go back. So, I decided to check out the National Museum of American Jewish Military History (www.nmajmh.org), which is tucked into the quintessentially DC neighborhood of DuPont Circle.
The NMAJMH recognizes the contributions of Jewish Americans to every war from the Civil War to the Iraq War and thereby ensures that the contributions of Jews to the U.S. military do not go unrecognized. The founders of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA were originally concerned that many people (including Mark Twain!) did not believe that Jews served their country during the Civil War and they set out to combat this misconception.
The museum has permanent and temporary exhibits. I spent the bulk of my time in two exhibits: Women in the Military, which highlights the contributions of Jewish women to the various war efforts, and Rescue and Renewal, which includes vignettes about Jewish servicemen who were among those who liberated the concentration camps at the conclusion of WWII. The most remarkable story I read was about one soldier who had been held in a concentration camp in the early part of the war, then fled to the United States where he enlisted in the military and, eventually, helped to liberate a camp. How that must have been, I can not imagine.
The museum also does a nice job covering Jewish life in Displaced Persons camps after the war. This was something I had not learned about before, but it would make sense that so many Jews would not be interested in returning to their former homes yet not have anywhere else to go (thanks to the British blockade of Palestine and the immigration policies of the U.S. and other countries that could have/should have done more to resettle the victims, but that’s another post).
There is a remarkable photo of Rabbi Herschel Schacter conducting Shavuot services for Buchenwald survivors shortly after liberation. The photo shows several hundred gaunt men, Rabbi Schacter on the makeshift bimah lost in somber celebration. The men’s striped uniforms are covered with a shabby array of jackets. I stared at this photo for a long time, contemplating the symbolism of how jackets, a mundane piece of the life the men would soon resume, were thrown over the striped uniforms of their captivity. To me, the picture aptly captured the transitional stretch of time between the liberation of the camps and the resumption of “normal” life for the survivors.
The exhibit describes the process by which the camps went from being concentration camps inhabited by victims to humane places providing basic food and clothing, as well as mental and emotional support for those facing the task of rebuilding their lives. The museum makes the point that Jews were not the only DPs.
As I left the museum, I paused to look at the pictures of the young Jewish men and women who have lost their lives in the Iraq War. I paused only a moment before leaving. The faces were all so young.