For families with older kids, this museum is a must-visit in our nation’s capital.
With so many free museums in Washington, D.C., you could easily spend a week exploring and only scratch the surface. So why spend two hours at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? We knew that it would be a place where the images could be difficult for our two teenagers, ages 12 and 14, to comprehend; but we also felt a visit here would encourage good discussion on prejudice, racism, the importance of speaking up and protecting the helpless, abuse of power, and simple empathy for the human race.
As we arrived, we scanned the images in the foyer and knew that we were in for an emotional afternoon. Although my kids are teenagers, we decided to stick to the recommendations in the Family Guide, a collection of activities appropriate for visitors, age 8 and up.
Photo courtesy: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
What to do?
The first exhibit to the right of the entrance is the story of a young holocaust survivor named Daniel. The exhibit, which was created with the help of psychiatrists, educators, and museum interpreters, is specially-designed for kids. The exhibition shows how Daniel, an energetic 11-year-old boy, has his life transformed. Told through the single voice of Daniel, the clever exhibition is actually the collective experiences of children of the holocaust - from their normal childhoods to life in the ghettos to the concentration camps.
The exhibition takes place between the years of 1933 and 1945. We first learn about Daniel's happy childhood as we walk through the cozy home that he shares with his mother, father, and sister, Erika. Daniel loves to play with his neighborhood friends, ride his bike, and tease his sister. The pictures of these stories along with oversized handwritten pages from his diary are shown throughout the room and paint a picture of a beautiful, comforting childhood.
Daniel's prized possession is the badge of honor that his dad was awarded for fighting in the World War I. The story of how Daniel cherishes and holds onto this badge is woven throughout the exhibit. In happier times, Daniel keeps the badge next to his bed in his room.
In the next room, we see Daniel's filthy new home in the ghetto. As Hitler comes to power and his goal of exterminating Jews takes shape, horrific scenes of racism and violence are prevalent. Jewish shops are closed; Jews are ordered to wear yellow stars; Jewish synagogues are burned. The room is moldy, overcrowded, and has several families living together. We read diary entries of starvation, depression, and long hours of work. Despite the living conditions, Daniel still keeps his treasured possession, his father's badge, by his bedside and finds comfort in having it close.
Next we walk into the phase of Daniel's life which takes him from bad to worse, as he and his family are transferred to Auschwitz. The family is ordered to give up their possessions. We see dozens of suitcases, jewelry, and other items piled together like garbage. It’s here where Daniel reluctantly must leave his father's badge of honor and eventually become separated from his family.
Images in this final room are understandably disturbing. We learn that Daniel's mother and sister were murdered at Auschwitz, and Daniel and his father survive. At the end of the exhibition, we leave Daniel's story, although it never leaves us.
We walk upstairs to the Hall of Remembrance. The room is large, simple, and impactful. It is a hallow place with an eternal flame burning bright at the front of the room. We sit for a few minutes, look into the flame, and don't say much. The words inscribed on the wall behind the eternal flame, a passage from Deuteronomy, sum it up well:
"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.”
We didn’t visit the permanent exhibit, since a timed ticket is needed to get into see the three-story chronology of the holocaust. You can get these tickets at the museum on the day of your visit (arrive early) or you can get them online. The permanent exhibition is recommended for children 11 years and up. The ticket allows you into the exhibition anytime during the hour, and you can stay until the museum closes.
Photo courtesy: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
The museum (100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW) is located on the National Mall. The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian (orange or blue line).
For more ideas from KidTripster's top 10 family-friendly activities in Washington, D.C., click here.
Balbinder Banga lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and her two children, a 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. The family loves to travel and has an oversized map in their living room with white tacks for past destinations and black tacks for future must-visits.