My name is Dora

Lisa Respers

April 26, 1993|By Lisa Respers

I did not start crying until I saw the drawing. It was a simpl picture of a deportation train drawn in crayon on a scrap of manila by a four-year-old Jewish child. But it suddenly forced me to confront all of the emotions I had felt from the moment I walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

History was changed forever on Jan. 30, 1933. That was the day that the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor.

From that moment on, the German government began an inexorable movement to "purify" the "Aryan" race, starting with the boycott of Jewish businesses and professionals and ending finally with the radical evil of the Holocaust and the attempt to murder an entire people.

From the moment you step into the museum, the enormity of the event overwhelms. It would take four hours to read through the entire exhibit. Visitors start the tour by being issued "identity cards" from a machine that matches the visitor with an actual Holocaust victim of similar age and sex.

An iron-gray elevator carries visitors to the fourth floor, where the exhibit begins. On the way up, a videotape relates what the allies found when the concentration camps were liberated in 1945. The doors of the elevator open to reveal a huge blowup of the charred remains of bodies at the Ohrdruf concentration camp in central Germany.

The group I rode with was hushed. No one spoke above a whisper as they wandered from picture to picture, contemplating the horror, shaking their heads. "I can't believe some people still claim this didn't happen," a woman next to me said.

I had expected the sadness. I had not expected feeling such a personal connection to it.

I had always thought of the Holocaust in terms of slavery. African-Americans suffered in bondage for hundreds of years and to me there had always seemed a certain parallel between their suffering and that of the Jews.

But the African slaves brought to America were at least considered valuable property. The Jews of Hitler's Germany were walking ciphers. Hitler set out to destroy them systematically, at first through intimidation and terror, then wholesale slaughter. The museum meticulously documents the progress of the Holocaust through photographs, videotapes and recordings.

The tortured souls of the victims seem to inhabit the building. At various points along the tour, machines update the information about the person named on the visitor's identity card. The back of the card bears the inscription: "For the dead and the living we must bear witness."

The young woman on my identity card was named Dora, a Russian Jew. As a child, she was a swimmer and dancer. I was also a dancer and a lifeguard during my teens. Later Dora joined the Young Pioneers, a Soviet youth organization. When she was 19 the Nazis captured her, bound her hands, tied a rock around her neck and shot her. Then they threw her body into a river.

Everything about the museum is personal: the uniforms the concentration camp inmates wore, their shoes, soup bowls, even their toothbrushes. The artifacts document a monstrous and inescapable truth.

A group of Holocaust survivors who visited the museum the same day I was there stood before two crematoriums taken from death camps in Germany and embraced as they read a quote from Elie Wiesel, a fellow survivor and Nobel laureate: "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever."

There is a glass wall in the museum etched with the names of hundreds of towns in which all the inhabitants were killed. By the end of the war more than 1 million Jewish children alone had been murdered. Their drawings, which cover part of one wall on the second floor of the museum, speak poignantly of an innocence that was forever lost.

Opposite the children's drawings is another wall inscribed with the words attributed to the German clergyman Martin Niemoller:

"First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

I was standing in front of that wall wondering why I had come and what it all meant when a woman passed by and touched my arm.

"Did you read it?" she asked. "Read what it says on the wall. That's why everyone should stick together."

Lisa Respers is an editorial assistant in the Carroll County bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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