It's really the smell that hits you first. The damp, musty smell of aging leather. And then you realize that the gray heaps you're looking at are shoes--hundreds of shoes that once graced the feet of long-dead people.
The room with the shoes is on the third floor of the Holocaust museum in DC. I visited the museum once before, back in 2001 when J and I were still just dating. In the entire experience of walking through the museum's eerily silent exhibits, it was the room of shoes that made me need to reach out and clutch his hand. I had seen so many films, read so many books, seen so many pictures of the atrocities, that experiencing the train car, the torn fragments of a Torah, even walking under the gates from Auschwitz were too familiar to be truly gut-wrenching. But that room filled with shoes--some stylish, some practical, all made monotone by sixty years of decay--brought home the human aspect of the Holocaust like nothing I'd ever experienced.
This last weekend, we visited the museum again. It was my parents first time back to DC in my lifetime, and my mom wanted to see it. This time, I turned the corner, out of the Auschwitz portion of the exhibits knowing what to expect next, and with a squirming 17 month old in my arms.
Let me just say, that this particular museum is probably no place for a toddler. It's dimly lit and exudes a funeral atmosphere that even the most jocular teen doesn't seem willing to break. I hurried him through each floor, trying not to disturb other visitors, and would wait in the brighter lobbies that waited at the end of each segment. As I sat waiting for my parents to emerge from the previous floor's exhibits, Little Man played with his new stuffed Panda, and periodically cheered for the visitors descending the steps, thinking that grandma and grandpa would appear at any moment.
When you go through the museum, you're not usually thinking about how it is affecting those around you, but having a toddler there made me acutely conscious of it. I watched people exit from the exhibits, tears streaming down their faces. The whole procession was like watching a family make their last viewing at a funeral. I was glad that most seemed relieved rather than irritated to see a jubilant toddler applauding their descent.
Escorting a toddler through the National Holocaust Museum is not something that I would recommend, and yet the experience made the museum something completely new for me. He walked through exhibit after exhibit completely unaware of the emaciated faces gazing down at him from countless photographs. For him, the room of shoes seemed an odd, and somewhat fascinating spectacle disrupted only by an inconvenient railing that kept him from trying them each on. Experiencing the museum with a toddler illustrated just how devastating the entire atrocity was. After the Holocaust, innocence like that of my son doesn't last much past the very early years. There is no way to go back to a place where pictures of piled and burned bodies don't exist. There is no way to recapture the consciousness of a time before the final solution, except perhaps in the very early years of childhood.
I'm sure it won't be my last visit. Maybe in another ten or twelve years or so, we'll take him through it once again. When that time comes, he won't be unaware. When that time comes, the smell of the shoes will stay with him, too.