'This just knocks you out' Museum visitors leave stunned

April 27, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Loni Lehman walked down the last corridor of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum yesterday, her eyes as wet as the gray day outside, her hands clenching the yellow Jewish star she wore on her clothing as a child in Germany, her head reeling.

The 62-year-old New York housewife and Holocaust survivor, one of more than 3,000 visitors who toured the museum yesterday as it opened to the public, said she'd just seen her life flash before her eyes.

"You try to go day to day without thinking of it if you can," said Mrs. Lehman, whose grandparents perished in the Holocaust. "This has dredged up all kinds of old memories that I've tried to bury."

Whether they were survivors or not, had ties to the Nazi brutality or not, whether they were Jewish or not, most of the first visitors to Washington's newest landmark, some of whom waited hours in long lines to get in, came away yesterday stirred, angered, saddened, scared -- and in many cases, visibly shaken.

"I've got to get out of here," said Mark Acuna of Claremont, Calif., so overcome with emotion he sighed and breathed heavily as he hurried out, leaving two friends behind. "You read, you read, you read. This just knocks you out."

Naomi Rivkis, a college student from New York, stood nearly frozen and speechless, her long dark hair framing a face that was beet red. "It scared the hell out of me," said Ms. Rivkis, a Jew who came to Washington precisely to be one of the museum's first visitors.

For Ms. Rivkis it was the scraps of paper with words and poems that evoked the most profound emotion. For others, it was the recorded stories of torture or resistance from survivors, or the photographs of skeletal corpses, or detroyed villages, or concentration camps.

Alexis Lamontagne, 18, of Herndon, Va., sat alone on the white marble steps of the Hall of Remembrance, wiping away tears and contemplating her Jewish background as candles flickered around her.

"I've never felt this way," said the high school senior, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a denim jacket. "I'm mad that it happened, mad that no one stopped it. It shouldn't have happened."

She was already thinking about coming back again next month when her grandparents would be visiting from Boston.

"Watching an 18-year-old coming to terms with her heritage is real hard," said her aunt, Nan Lamontagne, who comforted her niece through her own tears during much of their tour of the museum.

"I don't have any words," said Mrs. Lamontagne, who, unlike her niece, is not Jewish. "These are things we've always heard about. You believe them, but they're not real. Seeing these things -- it's really too much to bear."

For yesterday's debut, a line for tickets started forming before dawn and by the museum's 10 a.m. opening had extended all the way to the back of the structure and up an entire city block. While about 1,000 of the time-specific tickets are issued free this way each morning, on a first-come, first-served basis, other tickets can be reserved for a $3.50 service fee through Ticketmaster.

Even with hundreds of visitors at a time walking through yesterday -- their colorful warm-up suits and parkas contrasting with the bleak, gray exhibits and structure -- there was mostly a heavy silence throughout the three floors of exhibits, broken only by tearful sniffs, occasional gasps and the recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

"Oh my God," gasped one visitor, seeing a display of shoes, a monochromatic pen of broken-down, beaten-up leather, the "last witnesses" to those exterminated. In a boxcar that visitors walk through, a young woman began to sob. Before a display of a German-occupied ghetto, a couple turned to each other and embraced.

Particularly poignant for many was the ID card each visitor is issued with the story of an individual from that era whose experience they follow along the tour. Some, like Jane Levin, a psychologist from Minneapolis, Minn., nearly fell apart upon learning the fate of their counterpart. "This woman survived," Ms. Levin exclaimed about Sara Galperin of Lithuania. "I never thought she'd be liberated."

Many, even those who'd been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, or death camps in Poland and Germany, felt this museum was unique in its educational role. And visitors easily drew parallels with the world today -- with the "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia, with the plight of Haitian refugees, or those with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Like Ms. Levin, many in yesterday's crowd had been in town for the gay and lesbian march over the weekend, and felt an especially strong bond because of the Nazi persecution and extermination of homosexuals documented at the museum.

"I resonate very strongly to this museum," said Ms. Levin, a Jew and a lesbian. "It's almost as if I'd been there. In my soul, I feel like I have."

But even those with no ties at all seemed to feel a resonance. "We're not Jewish, we're not homosexual," said Dennis Wood, a real estate investor from Phoenix, Ariz., with his wife.

It didn't matter, he said. "This is the truth."

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