Thursday, June 11, 2009

Holocaust memories

Attack in D.C. brings to mind
another sad day at the museum

The murderous attack Wednesday at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a crazy octogenarian American nazi brought to mind my last journey there, at the behest of a houseguest who had been a child in Germany during World War II – and a victim of sorts.

Leo, our visitor, shared a few of his time-dimmed memories – the first of them being Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938, when Hitler’s thugs began in earnest the genocide that would claim some 6 million European Jews and untold millions of others.

Among the thousands of homes and businesses ransacked as Jews were rounded up, and thousands deported to concentration camps, was a neighborhood confectionery. Leo’s memory was of his asking his parents why the candy store had been destroyed, and not getting much of an answer.

Eventually, Leo said, his family had to move to a town in Poland.

His father – a Nazi official – had been appointed as its de-facto mayor.

Leo’s next shared memory, a little more vivid, comes from late in the war: His mother hurriedly packing the car, and big guns firing in the distance that heralded a Russian advance. His family fled back to Germany, and survived. Leo said his father was sent to some sort of re-education camp, and subsequently came home – and did not speak of his role as a Nazi before dying in the 1950s.

But Leo, as he grew up, learned what happened in the war and eventually moved to America. A retired physician in his early 70s, Leo wanted to visit the Holocaust museum to see firsthand the evidence that so much cruelty and murder had left behind – walk through a rail car that had carried the victims to death camps, see the room filled with their shoes, see the pictures of people who vanished into gas chambers and ovens and mass graves, mothers, fathers, children.

Leo wept. It was the legacy of his father: Guilt and overwhelming sorrow for horrors that had surrounded his childhood.

And I, who grew up Jewish in Northwest Baltimore, put an arm around him offering consolation.

Maybe 88-year-old James W. von Brunn is also a victim. He is, after all, afflicted with a disease all too common in the United States: Hatred. And after voicing it for years, von Brunn, a convicted felon, stepped out of his car and into the museum Wednesday carrying a rifle. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire, von Brunn was critically wounded and a security guard was killed.

Accounts of the event describe von Brunn as, among other things, a white supremacist. His victim Wednesday, Stephen T. Johns, who had worked at the museum for six years, was an African American – and, with the other guards whose quick action protected a crowd of visiting schoolchildren and tourists from injury, a hero.

The slain security guard likely was on duty the day that Leo and I took our sad walk back through time.

To see a few photos from that day, check out Bonnie's Journeys blog at

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