She’s the first picture you see when you walk in, a little girl not more than 4 years old with her classmates in Poland, the only girl in an all-boys school.
“There I am, the little girl with a bunch of boys,” says Lillian Gewirtzman, now 75, smiling. “These schools were only for boys. It never occurred to me to say, ‘Mom, what were you thinking?’”
Gewirtzman points to her family in another picture, one of hundreds lining the walls of the museum. She was 5 years old and lived with her family on the border of Russia when the Nazis came to power. Her father told them they had to cross.
“Everybody thought he was totally insane,” she says. As foreigners in Russia, her family was treated as a threat and sent to a Siberian labor camp from which they later escaped. Her uncle, upset by this, returned home. He was killed in a concentration camp.
“We had no idea what happened until we came back to Poland and we found that our whole family was dead—uncles, aunts, grandparents, little cousins, everybody.”
But the museum’s first gallery, referred to as “the family album,” doesn’t tell that story. It serves two purposes: to introduce survivors and their relatives to visitors not as victims, but as individuals who lived normal, everyday lives, and to show that the Holocaust didn’t happen overnight.
“The actual murder was the last step of a long process,” says Gewirtzman. “A holocaust doesn’t happen in one step. It happens by very little steps that are being overlooked in society.”
Beginning with the Crusades, up to the early 20th century, each display is an example of how civil rights were gradually stripped from a population so slowly and over such a long period of time that when the Nazis came to power, most didn’t leave the country or even say a word, simply because it wasn’t very different from what already was. Hate had become acceptable.
“Every society has a segment of people who, for whatever reason, are prone to violence,” says Gewirtzman. “They do this for many reasons—some people do it for no reasons—but they get their license from those of us who are silent.”
In another picture, a proud father stands smiling at his baby boy in his wife’s arms. A sports team poses in uniform. A well-dressed woman in stilettos and short black hair walks down a city street. A birthday party by the pool. An older man with a pipe. A young girl in an apron.
“To me it is mind boggling that Germany could convince the very educated that these people were not the same as the rest of them,” says Gewirtzman. “How do you convince people that these little girls are not like the rest of you?” she asks, pointing to a picture of four children. “I sometimes stay awake pondering…people who were lawyers, who graduated from institutions, sat down and wrote the Nuremberg Laws and not one of them said, ‘This is crazy.’ Envision an architect sitting there drawing and he tells his wife he can’t come down for supper because he’s designing a death camp.”
But there are no death camps, emaciated bodies or mass graves in this room. At first glance, Gallery One may seem like a well-decorated entranceway into the other galleries. There are only smiling faces here. But to me this is the most haunting room in the museum. Because the man smoking the pipe looks like my grandfather. The family in the park looks like my family. The little girl in the white snowsuit looks like me.
This room represents the before, and in this country I don’t believe 6 million people could be murdered. I don’t want to. Then I realize that the people on the wall next to me sunbathing by the pool probably thought the same thing: This could never happen here. And then it did.
The reality is that the things that led up to the Holocaust—indifference, bullying, apathy, intolerance, conformity—can be found at the nearest high school. And if hatred spread through printed pages then, how quickly could it spread now, with the click of a mouse or a Facebook account?
“My husband goes to schools and his eyes light up and he believes that after he has spoken to the kids they’ll change, but he is not the only influence,” says Gewirtzman. “He believes if you can make them hate you can make them love. I have my doubts. I think it is easier to make them hate.”
A visitor passing says under his breath, “A person can get real mad walking through this place. Real mad.” The shocking thing is, Gewirtzman, who was brainwashed as a child and spent most of her young adulthood in displaced persons camps, isn’t.
“I have tremendous sympathy for any kid who gets brainwashed,” she says. “I hated Germans before I knew Germans. I know how the Nazi kids felt. The Hitler Youth were just kids, badly educated. They were not born with brown shirts.”
Gewirtzman was in displaced persons (DP) camps from the age of 12 to 17. She came to the U.S. as a refugee, speaking six languages, got a job practically the same day she arrived, later went to college, built a successful pharmaceutical business with her husband, got her master’s in philosophy, created a DP exhibit she traveled with around the globe, interviewed other survivors for the Spielberg Foundation and had two children she refers to as “diamonds.” She says the most important thing she learned in the DP camps was not to hate, even the Nazis.
“The person who you hate doesn’t hurt, you hurt through hate,” she says. “You want revenge? Terrific. Do great things in life.”
And while textbooks can preserve the details of the Holocaust, the one thing, the most important thing, they can’t capture, is the experience and spirit of the survivors, a gift the world faces losing when there are no more first-hand accounts to be heard. It’s what the museum is trying so desperately to preserve.
“[My experience] stands between me and everything I do,” Gewirtzman adds. “It’s something that doesn’t go away. It’s not like I walk around depressed. I have fun. I’ve lived a good life. But it’s there. It’s there whenever I write something, whenever I do something, whenever I see a parallel. It’s even there when I see an Arab kid blow himself up. And I try to explain to my friends this child is a victim…a victim.”