Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Confectionery Victims of the Shoah

Three summers ago, the very weekend after school let out, our family went on a trip to Washington, DC along with another family with whom we're close friends. Our children are the same ages and respective genders (we actually met through our daughters, who attended the same camp the summer before they entered kindergarten), live in the same town, share similar senses of humor, and at least three out of the four adults among us grew up in decidedly insane families.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that apples don't fall very far from their proverbial trees, and in this case, the apple in question was my son, then seven.

I had never been to DC before, and neither had our children. My husband had been there many years before, and I'm pretty sure our friends had as well, with the exception of their kids. In any case, we were all very excited. So many historic sights to see, so many museums to visit! And it was our son, Sam, who had suggested this journey. He was (and still is) very interested in American history and the workings of our government. His suggestion was met with much excitement by all of us, who had wanted to go there for the longest time, finally able to take advantage of the fact that the ages of our children -- seven and 10 -- were perfect for such a trip.

We left at dawn, and with my husband's maniacal driving skills arrived at the Mandarin Oriental in 2 hours, 50 minutes. (We later learned that he had finally been caught speeding -- a mere 12 miles over the limit -- inside the city itself, captured by a pole-mounted camera. When the photo and summons arrived in the mail a couple of weeks later, he couldn't have been more proud.)

We met up for lunch at the McDonald's inside the Air & Space Museum, followed by a self-guided tour of the place and, for the kids, rides in a flight simulator -- yes, after a McDonald's lunch -- which resulted in Sam having to press the STOP button, thereby simulating an eject maneuver. We toured the U.S. Mint at the Department of the Treasury, during which all four kids somehow became convinced that they would be given “free money” as a departing souvenir, courtesy of President George Dubya himself. Needless to say, they left somewhat disappointed.

We were there for three days, visiting various national monuments, the usual museums, and even the not so usual – like the International Spy Museum, which we really enjoyed. We went to dinner in Georgetown one evening, and saw Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. I was overcome by the sudden urge to re-enact that old SNL skit in which a visibly drunk and obnoxious Abraham Lincoln heckles the actors on stage, thereby resulting in his being shot by a fed-up audience member (none other than John Wilkes Booth), but actually managed to control myself.

But it was at the final museum, one which we had thought long and hard about visiting, where genetic wiring sparked loose. It was the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, and children aside, I have long had my own misgivings not only about going there, but have never quite understood why such a place exists in the U.S. to begin with. If anything, the establishment of such an institution belongs in its country of origin or, at the very least, on its particular continent. Also, being the daughter of a man whose parents and brother perished in concentration camps was enough history for me. But I had heard and read many interesting things about it, and thought that perhaps our children would benefit from it and hopefully not come away traumatized.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about the latter.

I was fine (as were my husband and children) for the duration of the visit, but it was the very last part of the tour that got to me. It was called, Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, and was specifically designed to present the holocaust in a way that children could understand and relate to it. Sam, however, was his usual, happy-go-lucky comedic self, and it became clear that the whole point of this visit was lost on him. He pretended to march along with the people shown in archival footage, shouted "Hey! Where are all those Jews going?" and the sight of a bench marked “Jews Only” inspired him to sit down and animatedly point his thumbs backward toward himself.

I found myself tearing up during this last part, in spite of Sam’s reaction, or maybe partly because of it.

Luckily, this was the final exhibit, and I was more than ready to leave. As we walked out into a large, open space, I mentioned to my husband something I had actually mused about with someone else prior to embarking on this trip: “I can’t imagine this place has any kind of gift shop; I mean, what in the world would they sell there?” But there was a gift shop of sorts, a kiosk selling a few items, mainly books, videos, and patches depicting the flags of the allied forces.

Sam ran up to the kiosk, and asked the woman standing behind the counter a question she probably hadn’t expected, but really not all that unusual considering it was coming from a child. “Got any chocolate?” he asked. “No, I’m sorry, we don’t have any chocolate,” the woman answered.

But that wasn’t exactly what Sam was after. “No chocolate?” he continued, with a serious look on his face. “I thought maybe you had some chocolate Jews; you know, Jews made from chocolate.”

The woman fell silent, not knowing how to respond to that – I mean, how could she? – and the awkwardness of the situation hung in the air between us. I should mention that our son doesn’t “look” particularly or identifiably Jewish, which I quickly realized – or imagined, anyway – made the situation that much more infused with exactly the kind of unfavorable sentiment that eventually led to the creation of such a museum in the first place.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to her, as I pulled Sam away from the counter. “Clearly, this entire experience was lost on him. And by the way,” I added, hoping to further diffuse the tension, “he’s Jewish.”

The woman smiled weakly, as did I. Needless to say, it was definitely a good time to make our exit.

Looking back, and even shortly thereafter, I recognized that Sam was not only being typically Sam, but being linked on a cellular level with people of similar humor, it really wasn’t all that surprising that the chocolate Jews incident took place. Unbeknownst to him, as well as my husband and daughter, I had joked about the idea of a Holocaust Museum Gift Shop with my brother a few weeks earlier, when discussing our then-upcoming travel plans.

“What could they possibly sell there?” I laughed, to which my brother replied, "Maybe an incense burner in the shape of a crematorium!”

I rest my case.


Margo Lane said...

Oh! The chocolate Jew incident sounded so awkward I found myself cringing over here.

You're a great storyteller/writer Cheryl!

Anonymous said...
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Cheryl said...

Is that Eva as in Eva Braun? Hmm...your writing style looks suspiciously familiar...almost sibling-like...

Anonymous said...
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Will McKinley said...

That's a good story.

I wrote a story once for the newspaper about an exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Downtown New York City.

I went there and found it to be sort of a scary place. Everyone had to go through a metal detector at the entrance, and have their bags inspected. There were tons of guards all around. I felt like I was being watched at every minute I was there, which I probably was.

Ironically enough, when Iranian president Ahmadinejad came to New York for the UN General Assembly last month, he stayed at the hotel across the street from the Holocaust Museum.

Heidi Helmick said...

I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. many times in the past and each time I have come away from it feeling guilty that I have not done enough to remember and educate people about the Shoah. We Jews have lost many a talented person in the Shoah,and sometimes it really bothers me that they are not truly remembered for being who they were.
I am not probably expressing it right,but there are times that while I am researching old diaries and letters that were left behind, I am grateful that there is such a place like Yad Vashem and the Raul Wallenburg museum that does remember for us...Six Million Jews and Millions of Gypies and Gays too
have been forever slienced, but there,in music,literature,and art,
their voices still can be heard.
Cheryl,Thankyou for sharing your blog with me.